Roy Exum: The Facts - Deer & Trees

Monday, November 30, 2020 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

On Saturday deer season opens in Tennessee, and just as predictably as Tuesday will be the first day of December, the tree huggers will soon come running, clutching their “Bambi” books and bashing – if you please – the best conservationists among us. Those who hunt, and, yes, there is an undeniable thrill to the sport, do more for nature’s balance and the good of the land than any novice do-gooder ever dreamed. The deer herds, the migrating ducks, and other game birds/wildlife must be “thinned” in a carefully controlled and quite honorable way that is best attested by generations upon generations of hunters and animals alike.

Don’t throw rocks at any hunter.

Again, they know exactly the key role they play in nature and the love they have for our lands. You must also know it is patently stupid to throw rocks at anyone who openly carries a gun. Hunting seasons are how our conservation leaders regulate the wildlife balances from state to state and, believe me, they do one heckuva job. No, very rarely do you hear of a firearms accident because these people are responsible, avid about safety, and keen on improving wildlife habitat. Hunters are noble men and women, and take great pride in teaching their children to play by every rule.

What concerns me far more are our national forests, particularly in East Tennessee and, more pointedly, less than a mile from where I live on Lookout Mountain. The town is relatively small because the sloping sides of the mountain are under the most-welcome domain of the National Park Service. The famed “Battle Above the Clouds” Civil War battleground is part of the thousands of acres contained in the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park and is therefore “protected” by federal laws.

My problem is that only until after the first week in December can you see what a tinderbox of fallen trees, leaves and debris the sides of the mountain really are. You may remember the almost exact conditions leveled Gatlinburg on this very week four years ago. Actually, arsonists started the fire around this very time in November. Let’s let Wikipedia historians pick it up from here:

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Some of the towns most impacted were Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, both near Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The fires claimed at least 14 lives, injured 190, and is one of the largest natural disasters in the history of Tennessee. By Dec. 12, the fires had burned more than 10,000 acres (15 square miles) inside the national park, and 6,000 acres in other parts of the area. At least 14,000 area residents and tourists were forced to evacuate, while over 2,000 buildings were damaged and/or destroyed. One of the largest wildfires was the Chimney Tops 2 Fire, which burned more than 10,000 acres, and closed the Chimney Tops Trail. The Great Smoky Mountains wildfires were the deadliest wildfires in the eastern U.S. since the Great Fires of 1947, which killed 16 people in Maine.[15][16] In addition, the fires were also the most deadly and destructive of the 2016 Southeastern United States wildfires. The cost has now been established at $2 billion (with a ‘b’) in a tragedy that lasted 30 days.

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In Oregon, almost 1.1 million acres burned during the 2020 season, the most on record. The cost to fight the fires was also a record, $609 million and rising. And worse? From 2015 to 2019, which included some major wildfire years, Oregon lost a combined 93 homes, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. From 2015 to 2019, which included some major wildfire years, Oregon lost a combined 93 homes. Since this Labor Day, a stunning 4,009 homes have burned down.

In California – also in this year alone – CNN has reported that wildfires in California have burned over 3.2 million acres of land -- an area almost the size of Connecticut. According to a CalFire website, nearly 16,500 firefighters have been battling 28 major wildfires in the state, which have left 24 people dead and over 4,200 structures destroyed. For those in major California cities who have avoided the flames, smoke from the fires has choked the air and kept people inside. The continued risk of future fires has forced partial power shutoffs for thousands of California residents.

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So, in the little way my mind works, I wonder if the Park Service could get some type of special permit that would allow those who live within a 50-mile radius to enter park lands and cut up the fallen trees for firewood. Earlier this year as I cringed with all of America at the unprecedented Western wildfires, I contacted one of my great pals, Zelma Lansford, a dynamic woman who lives among us and is a longtime public servant on the National Park Service Advisory Board. Trust me, Zelma is the real deal.

She soon had an official response:

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“As for fallen trees on Lookout Mountain Battlefield, these are viewed as natural resources that, per National Park Service regulations, should be preserved as wildlife habitat and recycled into the ecosystem. This allows nutrients from the decomposing wood to return to the soil and promote the reproductive potential of native plant species. As a general rule, gathering of firewood or any other removal of natural product by the public for personal use is prohibited in national parks, unless specifically permitted in a few narrow circumstances authorized by policy.

“The accumulated amount of downed wood on public lands is higher than it would be if natural fire cycles had not been disrupted by decades of fire suppression policies. Conducting a prescribed fire on Lookout Mountain Battlefield would be more challenging, however, due to the steep topography and proximity of private homes on the park boundary. Other vegetation management strategies, such as mechanical thinning to achieve the same resource benefit, will likely be pursued in the future.”

Good. I support that, but Zelma did include a cute story: “A few years ago, when walking through one of the western parks with the superintendent, I bent down and picked up a sequoia seed cone for further inspection. With a chuckle, the superintendent said, “Now, Zelma, you know that you can’t take that home with you—not a leaf, not even a pebble.”  At one time, there was a phrase, “Take only photos and leave only footprints.” Now, with the overcrowding on park trails causing erosion, the phrase has become, “Take only photos.”

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Zelma made sure I got a copy of an article in the Congressional Record from David Mihalic, a former superintendent in Yellowstone who explained what fires in the forests do, and why they are essential. Here’s an excerpt:

Mihalic begins: “Two federal laws were 'delegated' to all states for enforcement: The Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. The states could make them MORE stringent but not less stringent. The issue here is the air act. California has made them more stringent, which is why you have “California autos” that meet CA air pollution standards and “49-state cars” that meet the regular (less strict) Clean Air Act standards.

"The California Air Resources Board- CARB - enforces the Clean Air Act. Then there is both NEPA and 'see-qua' or CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, more stringent than and in addition to NEPA.

"Every time we tried to do a prescribed burn (in Yosemite) we could rarely get permission (only 25 percent of the time) from CARB to burn the burn piles (from mechanical thinning) or to ignite a prescribed burn. And, when we DID get permission it was always for a smaller amount. We would ask for a 1,500-acre prescribed burn and get only 300 or 500 acres.

"If you remember, we would have burn piles in the Valley sit for two or three years! And those were burned in the winter, in snow! But winter weather causes inversions and smoke doesn’t easily dissipate. So again, CARB ruled.

"ALL those proposed burns had to go through an environmental assessment, or EA, and often the public objects to cutting (for burn piles). Why? Because many think, in a national park 'thinning' is equivalent to 'logging.'

"Between trying to do 'mechanical' removal of fuels (resulting in burn piles) and the public outcry, and prescribed burns prohibited by CARB, we never could get ahead of the increasing fuel load.

"Thus, the result was when a wildfire occurs - it burns big.

"Yosemite is one small, half-million-acre park. Multiply that by all the national forests, Bureau of Land Management, other national parks, and state forest lands across California, and there is no way to erase a century of suppression which only continues to build up fuels. Trees live, but also die and when they do, they dry up and fall to the ground.

"Remember, the whole West - western landscapes - are 'fire-dependent' ecosystems. The general public doesn’t understand, for example, that sequoias, Ponderosa and lodgepole pines, and Douglas firs only sprout seeds after a fire.

"Thus, these forests evolved over millennia from fire, and they must, and will, burn!

"I always would say in public meetings, 'It’s ALL going to burn some day; we might as well burn it when we have a chance to control it rather than have it burn it uncontrolled.' I think people who live in forest landscapes in Montana, Alaska, Idaho, and other parts of the West have a better understanding of all this. But California has a huge urban population and even if they do understand, it’s easier to 'blame the Feds!'

"So, yes, it’s mostly Federal land but if the State won’t allow controlled burns or cutting - including logging, on US Forest Service or BLM lands, it sets it up to 'it will all burn some time.'"

* * *

The obvious answer is a ‘controlled burn.’ But, whoa! In your wildest dreams, can you imagine the good and well-meaning people of Lookout Mountain, Lookout Valley, Orchard Knob, and down into Chickamauga enduring a series of controlled burns to help our lands? Absolutely not. No, buddy!

So, there’s your ‘out.’ When the zanies get their hands twisted up over deer season, let it gently slip the weekend after next, you and your volunteer fire department will not hunt in order to devote three whole days and nights to monitor a “controlled burn” around the Incline tracks and below Craven’s House on the ‘upwind’ side of Lookout Mountain So, help me, you will then become living witness to what is known by generations as “a conniption fit,” and it will occur on the very ground before you!

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(This from a Friday 11-18-2020 press release from the National Park Service)

FROM: BOISE, Idaho – The Department of the Interior announced today that it has once again made substantial progress in Fiscal Year 2020 to reduce the risk of wildfire nationwide, treating a 10-year best, 1.5 million acres of public land to prevent wildfires. The National Park Service worked diligently as a part of these critical efforts to keep visitors, employees, as well as plant and animal communities safe from catastrophic wildfire. Through fuel reduction projects, interagency coordination, and proactive training, the NPS treated nearly 200,000 acres in at-risk areas.

“President Trump set aggressive targets to more effectively and actively manage our rangelands and forests to prevent catastrophic wildfires. He took bold action on this issue, which had been missing in previous administrations,” said Secretary David L. Bernhardt. “Answering the call in hitting our significant milestones were our top-class wildland firefighter crews, who have been on the front lines working around the clock to conduct these preventative treatments and extinguish destructive blazes throughout the West this year. They deserve our unending appreciation.”

The National Park Service has shown impressive dedication to protecting park resources, visitors and local communities from wildfire,” said Margaret Everson, Counselor to the Secretary, exercising the delegated authority of the National Park Service Director. “This year, 24 new firefighters joined the NPS structural fire ranks in national parks, strengthening our ability to respond to fire. In addition, we are proud to have trained more than 450 employees from the Department of the Interior, U.S. Forest Service, and state agencies as resource advisors, helping to build a strong fire management support community.”

 Guided by Executive Order 13855 – Promoting Active Management of America’s Forests, Rangelands, and Other Federal Lands to Improve Conditions and Reduce Wildfire Risk, as well as Secretary’s Order 3372 – Reducing Wildfire Risks on Department of the Interior Land through Active Management, the NPS has undertaken projects this year to protect people and park resources. These Orders allow Interior agencies to build on existing practices, promote fire-adapted communities, continue safe and effective wildfire response, and create fire resilient landscapes.

Over the last four years, NPS has worked to keep people and park resources safe from unwanted wildfires. Under the direction of the Trump Administration, the NPS wildland fire program has completed prescribed fire treatments on more than 725,820 acres. Prescribed fire treatments, or controlled burns, are an important tool to maintain diverse habitats for plants and animals, help endangered species recover, remove invasive species, and reduce fuels, thereby preventing a destructive fire. Along with efforts to reduce fuels on national park lands, the NPS has reduced risk to over 26,000 structures since 2017. In total, NPS has reduced the risk of catastrophic wildfire to 827,000 acres since 2017. These ongoing efforts not only protect people, ecosystems and structures but also maintain healthy, resilient landscapes.

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