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Burning Beauty

It's in the eye of the beholder

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Guy Pence, fire and aviation staff officer for the Boise National Forest, keeps a stuffed Smokey Bear in his big white government rig. One of the vintage fire posters in his Boise office proclaims: "If you're fighting fires, you're not logging."

But last summer, as 600,000 acres of the Boise and Payette national forests burned, Pence argued for cutting the number of firefighters in half and trying to choreograph the conflagration rather than put it out.

Pence started working forest fires 40 years ago, but he is on the cutting edge of thinking in the new fire-friendly U.S. Forest Service.

A million acres on the Payette and Boise forests have been "treated with fire," he said, as a result of recent big burns and stepped up prescribed burning. And the best plan for central Idaho's vast swath of timber is to let it burn back every couple of years hence.

"My opinion is, we have to manage that area now with fire," Pence said.

Letting fires burn for ecological benefit is now an accepted practice among fire professionals across much of the nation. But for the growing number of people who live near the forest, and for many who use the forests regularly, the result is tough to stomach.

When you go camping around Warm Lake this summer you can expect to get some black on your fingers. Skinny, charred pinage looms in vast stands visible from the roads. Some of Valley County's favorite spots are black and, to the casual observer, lifeless.

But look closer and you see a moist, green forest floor brimming with new grasses and shrubs. A perfect soil composition for a bumper crop of mushrooms. And new habitat for deer and elk.

Even for firefighters and managers who have come to understand the benefits of fire for the forest, Wildland Fire Use (WFU or wufu, as fire bureaucrats like to say) can be a hard sell.

"This hit me pretty hard as the district ranger last year," said Carol McCoy Brown, Cascade district ranger on the Boise National Forest. McCoy Brown had a close-up view of her forest as it burned last summer.

Last week, as we drove up to Warm Lake in a yellow school bus on a Wilderness Society and the Forest Service-led tour of last year's burn, McCoy Brown pointed to a large stand of dead, black trees and reiterated how tough it was to change gears last year.

"When I observed the burning last year, yes it made me sad," she said, adding it was strictly an emotional response. "I intellectually understand the role that fire plays in our ecosystem."

The Boise fought this complex of fires hard for almost three months before scaling back suppression efforts.

"Nothing that we did could stop them," McCoy Brown said.

They used the traditional arsenal: bulldozers, fire lines and hoped that roads and rivers would halt the fires' advance. But nothing worked. In the end, she realized that the big burn was inevitable.

"It's a fire ecosystem," she said.

That's the fire message that environmental groups like the Wilderness Society have preached for about a decade. As we drove past a burn on Highway 55 south of Banks en route to Cascade, Wilderness Society biologist Michele Crist recalled seeing the flames lick across the hillside last year.

"I thought, 'Wow, that fire looks great,'" she said.

While the fire agencies now understand the role of fire in natural systems, in many ways, they are ahead of the public, said John McCarthy, Idaho forest campaign director for the Wilderness Society. Fire threatens homes, affects air quality and changes recreation plans, McCarthy said, and people are not used to seeing the aftermath—black trees.

"I don't know as if the public gets the ecological role and even if they do, they don't like it that much because it's disruptive," McCarthy said.

Jonathan Oppenheimer, senior conservation associate at the Idaho Conservation League, says Idaho's sizable public lands and roadless areas help make this paradigm shift to embracing fire easier here than elsewhere.

"In a lot of ways, Idaho is really leading the nation in this," Oppenheimer said. "You get a big fire in Southern California, they have little choice. You don't have a lot of room to maneuver."

And Idaho politicians, who were quite critical of Bureau of Land Management firefighting in the heat of the 2007 megafires, may be taking a different tack this year.

Representatives for Sens. Larry Craig and Mike Crapo and Rep. Bill Sali's offices joined the Wilderness Society/Forest Service tour of the Boise and Payette forests and indicated they may be willing to help communicate the new fire message to constituents.

"We don't second guess Guy [Pence] and Gary [Brown, Payette fire staff officer]," said Crapo's natural resources staffer Layne Bangerter.

Crapo joined with Craig and Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter last year in calling out the BLM for its efforts on the 2007 Murphy Fire, southwest of Twin Falls, after the fire torched 650,000 acres of desert, including desirable grazing land.

But Crapo spokesman Lindsay Nothern said Crapo's concerns were more focused on the federal response after the fire than while it burned, particularly on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation, where federal assistance was slow to arrive.

"Certainly, the Congress has always wanted to weigh in on what we can do," Nothern said. "I think there is a realization that the forest managers know best on the ground."

Craig remains critical of wildland fire use, blaming it for releasing too much carbon into the atmosphere. In a Senate floor speech last week in which he opposed a climate bill, Craig said that the forests need to be thinned and cleaned, not allowed to burn.

But within weeks of a high profile press conference last year featuring Crapo, Craig and Otter taking the BLM to task, Otter was out in the field with bus loads of volunteers replanting sagebrush.

After the massive 2007 fire season in Idaho, land managers are finding new ways to harness post-fire restoration funds. Old, unused roads are being obliterated, culverts are being redesigned with fish migration in mind and forest visitors, particularly on ATVs, are being redirected to less sensitive areas.

When McCoy Brown started talking about the restoration work on the Boise National Forest, her demeanor improved noticeably.

Standing in a small meadow by the South Fork of the Salmon River beneath a cool spring rain, McCoy Brown pointed to fading tire tracks in the regenerating soil, to hillsides of blackened trees reinforced by a layer of mulch dropped from a helicopter, to the clear waters that will soon be home to returning salmon.

"I see the regeneration starting," she said.

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