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Wildfires, forest management & why hasn’t Yosemite Valley burned lately?
Dennis Wyatt

Here’s the 6.3-million-acre question: Why hasn’t Yosemite Valley burned?

The 6.3 million acres refers to the yearly average since 2012 of how much wild land and forests have burned in the United States.

You would think Yosemite Valley — it contains just 5.9 square miles of the national park’s 1,200 square miles and draws almost all of the annual 4 million plus visitors — would be a prime candidate for a major wildfire. There are lots of people that open the door for accidental fires, a confined space, and lots of fire fuel.

Yosemite Valley is arguably the heaviest used and most high-profile pin cushion on the planet in terms of varied forest management practices over the span of 170 years from everything from livestock grazing to clearing trees for human use and concerns such as aesthetics, public safety and fire suppression.

It doesn’t have the exact dynamics of Paradise, but it has many of the same ills. It also has dimensions that rarely get any ink outside of forest scientists’ papers such as the accumulative effective of leaving countless stumps in place over decades to clear campgrounds and such that can lead to root diseases caused by fungal pathogens that spread to nearby healthy trees to weaken them. Those once healthy trees are subject to failure as well as being turned into kindling for a fire. Since 1973, root disease has led to tree failure in Yosemite Valley that has killed seven people and injured 19.

The forest management practice that led to such conditions has since been modified or scrapped. It is one of a myriad of issues challenging forests from bark beetle inflections, periods of drought, human carelessness, aggressive wildfire suppression, overgrazing, illicit marijuana grows, human abuse and/or overuse and more. 

Forest management isn’t a subject that can be reduced to a 144-letter tweet or addressed with any degrees of soundness in the daily rage that passes in our time for public debate.

There is often a kernel of truth in what might politely be called the text equivalent of sound bites.

Forest management is not a one-size fits all science as it must take into account combinations of conditions such as development, terrain, watershed, soil, wind — you name it — that are unique to specific areas. There are some broad-brush applications but for the most part local issues whether it is the need to protect the habitat of an endangered owl or building too many homes in densely forested areas alter the dynamics.

Yosemite Valley’s forest management employs a lot of prescribed burns. The Forest Service uses them as well but not nearly with the intensity of the National Park Service in Yosemite. The reason is simple. Besides managing mega-areas in comparison with the National Park Service with significantly less staffing per 100 square miles the Forest Service deals with multiple uses that include active logging and cattle grazing. And while the public plays in Forest Service lands, the National Park Service is practically a tourist operation with a natural take on par with San Francisco’s Pier 39.

The Stanislaus National Forest on an annual basis uses prescribed burns such as in the Dardanelles area along Highway 108 as you near Sonora Pass but certainly in a less intense manner than Yosemite National Park. When a destructive wildfire swept through the Dardanelles area this past summer, there were a lot of trees and buildings burned but due to how the forest land around popular camping areas and such were managed wedded with how the fire was battled the scarring of the snippet of the western slope of the Sierra was minimal. It may not look that way to someone passing through but without what forest management steps had been taken the fire could have mirrored the one that swept through Paradise minus the destruction of all but a few cabins plus the Dardanelles Resort that did burn and likely no human deaths.

It is against that backdrop that logging interests and more than a few environmentalists have come to the conclusion that it makes sense to thin forests by cutting smaller trees and flammable brush in concert with small controlled burns to reduce not just forests fires but to avoid Armageddon style damage to ecological systems that endangered and non-endangered species rely on. The reason is simple. Such management practices involving thinning means wildfires burn lower to the ground and have less fuel. That means larger trees would not be destroyed as they tend to have fire-resistant bark that can withstand fires that don’t turn into infernos. That leads to fires that can be more easily contained. In turn forests would bounce `back sooner leading to less soil run-off that triggers other ecological disasters.

Not logging on an ongoing basis that could be considered a trim in terms of haircuts can be as devastating as clear cutting. The two major impulses — the tree hugging syndrome where touching a tree is a sin versus the freeway building mentality of leveling everything in sight — need to be toned down, controlled, and joined in a successful marriage that abandons extreme absolute objectives in favor of a balanced approach.

We also need to clear the way for implementation of solutions that works on nature’s timetable and not the legal system. The delays of such an approach dealing with logging damaged trees after the 2013 Rim Fire was the classic battle of protecting habit and saving salvageable lumber did neither side favors while exacerbating other environmental and land use issues.

We need more resources devoted to proven forest management ranging from zoning and prescribed burns to ecological system restoration to wise logging.

Sooner or later Yosemite Valley will burn again. It’s the will of nature. But the active steps taken to keep fire in check as well as extensive research on trees and ecological systems within the 5.9 square mile gem of the Sierra provides an insight into a set of forest management principles often developed by trial and error.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.