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  • Writer's pictureStaci-lee Sherwood

Prescribed burning: 'A Bad Prescription for What Ails Our Wilderness Landscape'

Updated: Feb 25, 2022

family band of wild horses symbiotically maintains wildfire fuels creating a natural fire-break in a forest, preventing what we see in the right-half of this image. Image: William E. Simpson II

By: William E. Simpson II *Guest Writer*

Peak wildfire season is now just a few months away. And if the truth was being told, our government agencies and public land managers have no better plan for preventing wildfires than before... Their solution?

Prescribed burning is a polluting, dangerous and cost-ineffective workaround for addressing the annually renewed key grass and brush fuels...

1) Prescribed burning puts even more toxic smoke, carbon compounds and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and robs us of clean air.

2) Prescribed burning can only address a tiny percentage of the total landscape (tens of millions of acres) that needs to have grass and brush-maintained year-round. Herbivores (wild horses, deer, elk) can do that work daily all-year-round, cost-effectively.

3) Prescribed burns are not necessarily timely: Many times, areas that are over-grown with grass and brush catch fire before any prescribed burn is used... and again, we have tens of millions of acres of area in just CA and OR filled with annual grass and brush fuels!

4) Prescribed burns have a way of becoming Wildfires! We have seen many accounts of so-called prescribed burns turning into deadly wildfires... with the loss of life, homes by the hundreds and devastation of the landscape and wildlife.

5) Prescribed burns remove native cover crops and exposes soils to catastrophic erosion, which in turn adversely impacts watersheds and the aquifer (instead of infiltrating the soils, water quickly runs off naked ground. Furthermore, the spawning beds in streams and rivers used by trout and salmon are also silted-in by the erosion caused by loss of ground cover due to prescribed burns and wildfires.

6) Biomass and its uses listen-well. However, when we put a critical eye on that paradigm, we quickly find that it sounds much better than it actually is.

Much of the western landscape terrain (area) that would allow any such expensive techniques and required equipment is extremely limited in area. The intense soils disruption caused by the heavy equipment used for biomass recovery, which includes logging-off burned trees, adds insult to injury on lands that have suffered wildfires.

Access to tens of millions of acres in OR and CA is extremely difficult due to rugged terrain. These are areas where in many cases, smoke-jumpers must parachute-in to attempt to fight wildfire, at grave risk to such personnel.

Moreover, in 'designated wilderness' areas, using any motorized vehicles and equipment are prohibited by law. This means there is about 110-million acres of 'designated wilderness' in the western U.S. where cost-ineffective biomass methods are prohibited by law, and virtually impractical due to remote, steep and rocky terrain.

So, the idea of using large gas and diesel-powered machines to harvest biomass and trucks to transport it all, is limited to a tiny fraction of the landscape due to remote, rocky and steep terrain.

And biomass equipment burns fossil fuels and the resulting biomass products export carbon to other uses, some of which do not sequester carbon... like wood stove pellets, which send carbon compounds into the atmosphere.

Reestablishing the Herbivory: Native species grazing (deer and wild horses) is the only ecologically and cost-effective method for reducing and maintaining grass and brush wildfire fuels in remote wilderness areas year-round.

Our now-depleted native herbivores (deer, wild horses, bison) had been maintaining grass and brush fuels to nominal levels in prior decades. California alone is down about 2-million deer over the past 5-decades, and those now-missing deer had been reducing wildfire fuels (grass and brush) across the landscape at the rate of nearly 3-million tons per year.

3) Prescribed burning year after year permanently damages the soils, as we read in this published Study about low-intensity burns:

The current institutional response: 'Give us even more money' will merely result in continuation of the currently proven ineffective methods, and then after wildfires have started, even more money will be spent on suppression.

A Metaphor:

Imagine being the captain and crew of a large passenger carrying ship that has a hole in the hull of the ship... a hole in the boat.

And so, if in this metaphor we used the same strategy and policies as we are hearing from some of our so-called leaders and 'experts', we would be arguing about how many and what kind of bilge pumps we should be deploying in the boat.

When in reality, the discussion should be about repairing the hole in our boat....

What we are seeing in the debate on wildfires is simple: Money creating narratives... instead of logic that protects public health, safety and welfare of Americans and their natural resources.

QUESTION: Is logic no longer important in regard to public land and wildfire management?

Is flawed institutional dogma now overshadowing genuine science and what is in highest and best interests of Americans and their public lands, forests, wildlife and water resources?

FACT: Where there is no fuel, there cannot be fire; regardless of planetary temperatures, and that is an immutable fact of science.

FACT: Where fuels are reduced by native herbivore grazing, the heat (intensity) of wildfire is also reduced as well as the frequency of wildfire. Less fuel equals, less heat, and that results in less damage to the landscape and fire-evolved conifers.

A preponderance of scientific studies coupled with empirical experience now prove that by reducing fuels, especially grass and brush fuels, we can reduce both the frequency and intensity of catastrophic wildfire

(See 'References' herein below)

FACT: According to wildfire forensics reported for hundreds of wildfires at InciWeb, the predominant fuel in a majority of western wildfires is grass and brush, which is now overgrown virtually everywhere in western states due to the collapse of the populations of our native species herbivore-grazers, a problem made much worse by people positing so-called solutions that dance-around the root cause of catastrophic wildfires without addressing that root cause.

Root Causation of Catastrophic Wildfire:

Science proves that the key grass and brush fuels are no longer controlled and maintained by the native species herbivores in the western U.S. because their populations have collapsed due to mismanagement. (See References Below)

California alone is down nearly 2-million deer (or more since hundreds of recent wildfires).

Those now-missing deer were cost-effectively reducing and maintaining annually occurring grass and brush fuels at the rate of nearly 3-million tons each year... maintaining these key fuels to nominal levels.

Money creates narratives, including influencing opinions among scientists and land managers, that are contraindicated to the health, safety and welfare of American citizens, and which are also increasing tax burdens on American taxpayers. Money driven narratives that drive policy also tend to compromise what's best for the environment and wilderness ecosystems. This must end.

Many designated wilderness areas are manifestly unsuited for wildfire grazing by invasive species cattle and sheep because of their ruminant digestive systems, which digest all the seeds of native north American plants and grasses that they eat, ending any re-seeding.

Ultimately, this kills-off native vegetation providing opportunities thereafter for invasive species plants and increases erosion that damages fisheries. This also causes great ecological damage to wilderness landscapes, especially wilderness areas with threatened and endangered flora that have co-evolved dependent fauna (birds, mammals, insects, etc.) that require certain species of plants and grasses for their survival.

Added to this issue is also the fact that many designated wilderness areas are unsuited economically for cattle and sheep due to intact apex predator populations as well as remote and difficult terrain where motorized vehicles and equipment are prohibited by law.

Interestingly, native species American wild horses don't digest most of the seeds they eat, and most seeds of native plants and grasses are re-deposited back onto the ground in their scat. Horse scat is also rich in humus and microbiome that gives the seeds that are incorporated therein a huge advantage for survival over seeds scattered by birds, small mammals or the wind.

Before your community burns, take the time to read the response I have provided to a former deputy director at the USFS, who is now promoting monetizing biomass from our forests along with other methods that fail to address the root cause of evolved wildfires today. Biomass harvesting is no solution for the grass and brush fueled wildfires that are widely distributed across 300-million acres of wilderness in the western United States, nor within the 110-million acres of 'designated wilderness' that have delicate ecosystems that would be destroyed by the equipment required to harvest woody materials in wilderness areas.

Using expensive, polluting and risky prescribed burning at any level to attempt to replace what Nature does so eloquently and so cost-effectively with native species herbivores, showcases flawed thinking behind adding more fire to the landscape and toxic smoke to our atmosphere, and totally fails to address the root cause of catastrophic wildfire.

About the Author:

William E. Simpson II is an ethologist living among and studying free-roaming native species American wild horses. William is the award-winning producer of the micro-documentary film 'Wild Horses'. He is the author of a new Study about the behavioral ecology of wild horses, two published books and more than 150 published articles on subjects related to wild horses, wildlife, wildfire, and public land (forest) management. He has appeared on NBC NEWS, ABC NEWS, theDoveTV and has been a guest on numerous talk radio shows including the Lars Larson Show, the Bill Meyer Show, and on NPR Jefferson Public Radio.


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