Colloquium Examines Causes and Consequences of Fire Suppression

By Rebecca Egli – Why did the U.S. Forest Service adopt harmful policies of rangeland fire suppression in the American West throughout much of the twentieth century? What damage did such policies do? Those were the questions addressed by human geographer Nathan Sayre on March 2, at the third event in the Environments & Societies Research Initiative’s Winter 2016 Colloquium Series.

Sayre —a professor of geography at UC Berkeley who studies the management and ecology of rangelands, and a researcher affiliated with the Jornada Experimental Range in Las Cruces, New Mexico —presented a paper entitled “Fire and Climax: Bureaucratic Divisions of Scientific Labor,” a chapter from his forthcoming book The Tyranny of Scale:  A History of the Science of Rangelands.

Embracing suppression

Early in the twentieth century, as the federal government brought millions of acres of land under its authority, the U.S. Forest Service was tasked with managing large portions of western rangeland.

Nathan SayreAccording to Sayre, because fire was contrary to the objectives of the Forest Service—protecting timber production, wildlife, watershed, and livestock forage— the agency embraced a policy of active fire suppression.

Critically, Sayre explained, it was the political objectives of the agency that frequently dictated its scientific agenda. The Forest Service regularly concealed research findings that conflicted with federal policy. While ecologists today recognize that fire suppression caused significant ecological harm, it took nearly a century for this knowledge to emerge and alter federal policy.

Adapting Clementsian theory

The Forest Service based their range management techniques on their interpretation of the work of plant ecologist Frederic Clements. In his landmark study Plant Succession, Clements argued that plant communities exist as a unified, distinct organism with fixed stages of development. Undisturbed, vegetation in these plant communities grows toward an ideal “climax state.”

Forest Service researchers adapted this theory, claiming that rangelands would restore themselves naturally as livestock were rotated periodically. While overgrazing might cause erosion, fire, most experts agreed, was far worse.

Practices such as overgrazing were promoted as a way to encourage fire control. Since the commercial value of rangelands was determined by the number of livestock it could support, scientists and administrators recognized the advantage of suppressing fire and maximizing grazing. The vital role of fire to healthy ecosystems proved to be a significant blind spot for the Forest Service.

Assessing risk

Today, the fire suppression practices of the Forest Service have been thoroughly discredited. Yet almost a century of fire control has transformed the rangelands to such a degree—from the spread of non-native grasses to expanding residential development—that the reintroduction of large-scale burning is nearly impossible. While fire could contribute to the health of rangeland environments, it is still considered too risky for widespread use.

To learn more about Nathan Sayre, visit his faculty profile on the Geography at Berkeley website. His book The Tyranny of Scale: A History of the Science of Rangelands will be published by the University of Chicago Press later this year.

Learn more about the Colloquium Series and see a schedule of upcoming events at the Environments & Societies website.

The Environments & Societies Research Initiative is administrated by the Institute for Social Sciences.