Mark Hudson, |
Fire Management in the American West
(University Press of Colorado, 2011)
"One of the most dramatic and effective interventions in nature, in a wide variety of places, landscapes, and ecosystems, is the manipulation of fire."
Mark Hudson, assistant professor and coordinator of the Global Political Economy Program at the University of Manitoba at Winnipeg, has written a fascinating and at times colorful treatise on the reasons for the apparently irrepressible spread of wildfires throughout the American West, a phenomenon that became suddenly worse in the late 20th century, requiring a policy shift within the United States Forestry Service.
Hudson would probably agree with the folk saying, "Fight fire with fire." For though his book is an historical treatise about how we in America have dealt with fires in our national forest lands, it also raises pointed questions about the tension between fire suppression and capitalist need (some would say greed) for timber, a tension that has been in play since the early 19th century and continues today.
The impulses that originally guided the USFS to make fire suppression a priority are obviously rational. Public campaigns with the national icon Smokey Bear inform us that most fires are man-made and must be prevented. But these are two basic assumptions that Hudson and others question. Nature herself causes many fires through lightning and the natural availability of "ignition materials" such as dry brush. It has been seen that rigorous fire suppression results in the overabundance of such ignition materials, and therefore leads to more fires. Hudson examines the term "natural disaster," pointing out that there are unnatural elements at work, and that a disaster is in the mind of the beholder. When a fire happens where people live, as is increasingly the case in the American West, it is certainly a disaster, but another question could be, should people live in places where natural disasters are likely to occur?
Hudson's book is scholarly, tracing the minutiae of America's fire prevention history and highlighting the radical policy shift that took place in the late 20th century when it became clear that after more than a hundred years of highly effective fire suppression in the western forests, there was a resurgence of forest fires and, indeed, those fires were worse than ever. Hudson states that although climate change can have been a factor as yet unquantified in that phenomenon, climate is merely reacting to changes in landscapes, and those changes were the result of human management. The management issue can be traced to political forces, and those forces, as is so often the case, can be traced to big business and big money, in this case, the timber business. Drawing on interviews "between and within the Forest Service and major timber associations," along with other documentation, Hudson underscores this significant relationship and its role in resurgent fires.
Though scholarly in its intent, this is a readable book about a very important subject. What are the implications of population spread that impinges on ecosystems? And what policies should be set in place to control, or not, the harvesting of timber on public lands? Hudson characterizes this dichotomy as "the perpetuation of functional, resilient, healthy ecosystems on the one hand and the accumulative and exploitative logic of capitalism on the other."
book review by
Barbara Bamberger Scott
7 January 2012
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