Sep 302010
Authors: Robyn Scherer

Imagine yourself in a forest. There are lodgepole pine trees all around you. You look up, and realize the trees aren’t the green you love, but a dull red color. You realize the trees are dying. This is the area of pine beetle kill.

Fire suppression has previously been a goal in National Forest lands. Urban encroachment has played a large role in this because no one likes to have his or her house burned down. However, this suppression has led to major problems on these lands.

According to the National Forest Service, “The balance between forest restoration, human rural development and fire risk remains an issue of major concern to natural resource agencies.”

One of the ways that some trees reproduce is through fire. The suppression of fire has led to areas of trees that are very old, without any young growth. When a bad bug, such as the mountain pine beetle, comes in they can destroy an entire forest in a short time because of the age of the trees.

Mountain pine beetles prey on older, not-as-healthy trees, and these stands are the prime targets. Without fire to clear out the forest, it has become much thicker than is natural and allows the bugs to spread from tree to tree much quicker.

This has led to the epidemic we now see and the reason why the forests are dying at such a rapid rate. Is Smokey the Bear to blame? Absolutely not. As a citizen, you should not be starting forest fires. You should put out your campsites, and be responsible.

But prescribed burning is a good thing. When the forest service, people who know what they are doing, go in and burn an area, it actually helps the natural ecosystem. The grasses will grow more, and there will be more production to feed animals, both wild and domestic.

Some people do not think this is a good idea, but I challenge you to go out and talk to your local forest rangers. They can explain to you, like they did to me, why prescribed burnings are a benefit. Some species, like the lodgepole pine, actually need fire to reproduce.

The cones of the lodgepole, which house the seeds, need extreme heat to pop open. Without fire, which was a natural part of the ecosystem before it was suppressed, these trees have not reproduced like they should, and now we have very old stands of lodgepole pine trees which are now under attack by organisms such as the pine beetles.

In some areas, such as the National Forest Land near Salida, efforts by the forest service have been successful in stopping the pine beetle problem. The forest service decided “thinning of more than 10,000 acres of overstocked stands, building more than 15 miles of fuelbreaks that border 6 major sub-divisions, and prescribed burning more than 11,000 acres on the project” would help to eliminate the problem, and they were right.

I saw first hand on Wednesday the effects of this effort, and it was remarkable. There were a limited number of pine beetle infected trees. The understory of the forest, or the area below the canopy of the trees, has a lot of new growth, which will be used to graze wildlife as well as cattle.

I was shown pictures of areas where the forest service has implemented this plan, and the improvement is incredible.

So what is the take home message for you? It is not that Smokey the Bear is bad because he plays an important role in educating the public about fire. But fire suppression is not the answer and has led to further problems in our National Forest Land.

Trust your local forest rangers to manage the land. They know what is best and know how to develop the land to benefit everyone, from permitted grazers to recreationists. Fire can be a good thing.

Robyn Scherer is a graduate student studying integrated resource management. Her column appears Fridays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to

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