Though major forest and range fires are sweeping Utah and 11 other states, it's the blazes in Yellowstone National Park that understandably are receiving the most attention.
So much attention that Interior Secretary Donald Hodel took a helicopter tour of Yellowstone Wednesday afternoon. After surveying the damage to America's oldest national park, Hodel announced that the Park Service would pursue a more aggressive policy to confront the worst fire outbreak in park history.Until now, the policy has been to fight natural forest fires only if they threaten people or structures. Though that policy normally serves well, the present situation is anything but normal. The entire country is in the midst of one of the worst droughts and consequently one of the worst fire seasons on record.
In view of such extreme conditions, the only responsible course for forest and range management officials is to make sure there isn't a point beyond which the policy of letting naturally-caused fires burn themselves out is no longer appropriate.
Certainly that policy has been un attracting plenty of new criticism lately, including criticism from such quarters as the Wyoming Heritage Society - which is worried that because of the unusually dry conditions fires may do exceptional damage.
In defense of the Park Service's policy of letting natural fires burn, the public should know that naturally-caused fires often are good for a forest or park, cleaning out dead and diseased trees so that new ones can grow.
Typically, scorched areas remain black only until the next spring, when the meadows grow up greener and taller than meadows untouched by fire. While some animals do get hurt in fires, the numbers are generally small. In fact, footprints of animals are found back in the blackened areas almost as soon as the fires are over. The animals apparently are looking for the new, highly nutritious grasses.
Moreover, fires create new edges in the landscape, where dense forests meet open meadows. Small animals like these edges, where they can feed in the meadows and hide and sleep in the forests. Wolves and bears also find prey at these edges.
But the current drought is so severe that some trees show lower moisture content levels than kiln-dried lumber. Moreover, besides destroying timber and wildlife habitat, uncontrolled fires also strip the ecosystem of its best natural defense against flooding: healthy trees, grasses, and brush whose roots trap rainwater and hold the soil together. After a fire, even moderate rains can cause heavy losses. The unhampered runoff erodes the land, triggers mudslides, and fouls rivers and reservoirs with mud and sediment.
All Americans, not just those who visit the parks and forests, may eventually feel the consequences of this summer's fires. Consequently, all Americans have a stake in the policy on fighting natural fires. Hodel is wise to change that policy as changing circumstances warrant.