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America’s Great Cultural Revolution on Fire

It was one of many revolutions that bubbled up during the Sixties, and for most people not a very significant one, but for those concerned with fire and wildlands it amounted to America's great cultural revolution on fire. The inaugural Tall Timbers fire ecology conference in 1962 was its opening salvo. Intellectual opposition collapsed like a wet sack. Over the winter of 1967-68 the National Park Service formally rechartered its fire policy. The Forest Service followed a decade later. We are now 40 years into the era of restored fire, and approaching 50 years for the revolution itself. Some federal agencies such as the NPS have enjoyed a longer rein under the new policy than under the old suppression-only regime. What do we have to show for it? Quite a lot, but whether the firestick is rekindling or going out depends on where you are and what you expected. The most astonishing outcome may be the persistence of the old debate. Like many (too many) Sixties themes, this one has remained long past its putative shelf life. The whole debate continues to be dressed up in a Smokey Bear costume, as though the only choice available is whether we fight fire or let it burn. The real-world choices are more complex and interesting, and this was true at the creation. The revolution was bicoastal, maybe bipolar. One pole lay in Florida. It looked primarily to private lands, focused on working landscapes devoted to hunting, grazing, and recreation, and tapped into deep local traditions of anthropogenic burning. The scene included public lands as well; the U.S. Forest Service had (reluctantly) accepted prescribed burning in 1943 for Florida, and the National Park Service, beginning a decade later, had officially reintroduced fire at Everglades. But the common element was the value of controlled burning to promote ecological and economic values. The poster species was the pyrophytic longleaf pine. The other pole was California. It looked primarily to the public estate, to national parks and bona fide wilderness, and sought ultimately to substitute natural fire for all human fire practices. Its architects, mostly wildlife biologists, recognized that the reformation would require a transitional period during which prescribed fire would be suitable, but the ultimate goal was to restore fire as they might wolves or grizzlies. Its poster species was the charismatic giant sequoia. The revolutionaries had common cause against a fire suppression juggernaut that they considered not merely unnecessary but itself damaging. That collective enemy helped mask the contradictions and choices that the new policy contained. Twenty years after the NPS adopted its new policy, Yellowstone burned hugely and publicly, yet left the potentially schismatic topics untouched. Twenty years later still they remain.  For over 40 years the true issue has not been whether fire should be restored but how - and how to judge the outcome. ---------- Steve Pyne is the author of Tending Fire: Coping with America's Wildland Fires. He is a professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University.