We recently were treated to a quail hunting weekend on a family property in far South Texas. It’s amazing how a little travel always gives you a fresh perspective, even if you are still in your own backyard. Our family gatherings usually involve some spontaneous adventures and this one followed true to form when some of the family decided the conditions were good for a prescribed burn. Now, country cell and data service can be fickle, and in this instance it managed to disguise an impending change in wind direction and velocity in the forecast that the fire-setters failed to add into their calculations and by the time we arrived on the scene, there was a rollicking range fire on, tensions were rising a bit and quick arrangements were being made for back-up equipment to set a wider fire-break around the perimeter. We were just in time to set off a few back-burns to help calm the beast. Always an adventure, I tell ya!
By the time the expected portion of the weather forecast arrived and it began to rain, the fire had exceeded expectations by perhaps a thirty percent increase in acreage, but was altogether a rousing success and sparked a lot of conversation about the management benefits of fire. Just as sure as we are likely to get into some excitement when my family gets together, it is just as inevitable that there will be lively discussions of the policies guiding our state and nation. No small wonder that fire policies in western states came under review, and in the course of the discourse, I connected some ideas differently than I had before.
Texans have long practiced controlled burning to eliminate dead grass thatch promoting new growth, open brushy areas to livestock and wildlife traffic, and prevent large accumulations of dead biomass fueling wildfires. The philosophy that the lushest pasture and most vibrant wildlife habitat is found in the path of a fire is universal in most Texas grazing communities, but that ideology is not necessarily shared by those managing public lands in states to our west.
While the campfire glowed and the wine flowed, our little controlled burn sparked conversations on the topics of fire suppression, the listing of the northern spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act in 1990 and the resulting devastation of the logging industry, the horrible wildfires in California this fall and the general decline of American families and communities, it occurred to me these were in fact NOT unrelated topics, but instead spelled the ties between land management and the quality of life on that land.
I came home and did a little reading and found a study done in 1998 predicting the decline in logging caused by protection of the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest would result in “up to 28,000 jobs could be lost leading to increased rates of domestic disputes, divorce, acts of violence, delinquency, vandalism, suicide, alcoholism, and other problems” (Gonzalez-Caban). I was in Northern California not long ago, in a once-bustling logging and ranching community. The only two industries supporting the community today is the state prison system and the local gambling casino. A more resounding realization of the 20-year-old Gonzalez-Caban prediction I could not imagine. Not only was the economy struggling, the surrounding forests were choked as a result of anti-fire and anti-logging policies and suffering mightily from beetle infestations exacerbated by overcrowding. Ironically, the latest victim of the spotted owl protection craze are the barred owls, who are being eradicated to relieve competition for the spotted owl. The irony extends to the fire suppression policies that have allowed the accumulation of rank undergrowth that fueled the California mega-fires of 2017.
I am not opposed to the protection of a species, but I firmly believe we cannot protect either domestic nor wildlife species effectively without a robust human economy. I thank my lucky stars every day to be a landowner in the state of Texas where public lands are limited and private ownership flourishes and each landowner is free to experiment with his own management ideas and wildlife is free to migrate where those ideas have been the most fruitful. Nothing is more frightening than when land management is tied to intransigent political stances. There is a difference between a controlled burn and burning down the house!
González-Cabán, A. (González-Cabán) (1998). A willingness-to-pay function for protecting acres of spotted owl habitat from fire. Ecological Economics, 25(3), 315-322.