Greg Peters is the Communications Director for the National Forest Foundation. This year they have launched an initiative to replant 50 million trees in areas that have been burned or affected by insect infestations, disease or other natural causes. Here, he shares a story of a recent trip into the hills and a first-hand encounter with the beginnings of a forest fire.
Disoriented and confused, my eyes fluttered open. Lightning flashed in my periphery and I felt a few light raindrops hit my sleeping bag. “Damn,” I thought, “We’ll have to sleep inside.” Thunder boomed in the distance and I willed myself fully awake.
“Holy shit!” Aaron called out. “Ben, wake up.”
Ben, our friend and host, was sleeping on his small bed in the Scalplock Lookout on the southern edge of Glacier National Park. Fire lookouts spend their summers posted in lookout towers, scanning parks and forests for fires started by lightning storms or humans. Earlier in the day, Aaron and I had trekked the 3,200 vertical feet and five miles up to the lookout. If the hike was tough, it was worth it. Views from lookout towers spill out in every direction, and we spent the afternoon awed by the 360-degree views of Glacier to the north and east and the Flathead National Forest to the south and west. Aaron and I packed in local grass-fed steaks and cold beers as a treat for Ben. In turn, his perch treated us to a spectacular sunset, which we savored while enjoying the beers and beef.
By around 9 pm, we were all beat, and the sky had darkened enough to consider packing it in. Aaron and I elected to sleep on the narrow catwalk that skirted Ben’s lookout tower, and it didn’t take long for us all to drift off.
Aaron’s shout pushed us into action. I sat up and peered across the valley to see what had caused his alarm: a tree was visibly burning, bright orange in the dark night sky. Aaron had woken a few moments before me and had actually seen the lightning strike hit the forest. In a split-second the tree was ablaze, and within a few moments, the fire was spreading. Ben rolled out of bed, pulled out maps and started working out the coordinates of where he thought the fire had started.
Within ten minutes, Ben had called the fire into the dispatch center on his radio. Aaron and I brought our bedrolls inside, and we watched for the next hour and a half as the fire spread across the forest. When we finally fell back asleep, the fire had consumed dozens of trees.
In the morning, the radio crackled with reports of new fires in the Park and in the Flathead National Forest that surrounds the southern border of the Park. Ben’s fire, which was eventually named the Paola Ridge Fire, was on Forest Service land, and we listened intently as dispatchers, fire lookouts, incident commanders and other personnel evaluated the situation. Mesmerized, we watched as the fire slowly spread across the ridge and into a different drainage. A helicopter flew over the fire, estimating the acreage. Other fire lookouts called Ben to make sure the plume of smoke they observed was the fire he had called in.
The radio chatter was fascinating. Each fire required a different response, and we tried to decipher the jargon: “We’ve got a jump ship coming for Coal Creek fire.” “Can I get a rappel crew for the North Fork?” “I’ve got super scoopers coming in for Howe Ridge.” With each request, we realized things were more and more serious, and we recognized that these fires would consume more than trees. With each new request, more staff, more equipment and more resources would be required to manage the blazes. And we were just in one small corner of the country. In California, Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona, Alaska and other states, the same scenario had been playing out all summer long.
Simply fighting fires, whether in forests or in parks, is incredibly costly. The Forest Service, which battles not only fires in national forests but also assists with other lands like national parks and state lands, devotes more than 50 percent of its annual budget to fighting wildfires. These costs force the Forest Service to “borrow” money from other programs like recreation, wildlife, and even forest management programs that could reduce fire severity. Congress recently passed a “Fire Funding Fix” in March 2018, which will help alleviate some of the fire borrowing when it kicks into law in 2020. But federal budgets are still thin and resources for post-fire reforestation even thinner.
Without adequate funding to conduct forest management work that would help prevent severe fires, there is very little funding to replant areas that have been burned – areas that provide water to communities, harbor wildlife and host visitors. In the absence of prompt reforestation efforts, rain and snow simply run off the fire-scarred ground, bringing sediment and other pollutants into nearby streams and rivers. From California to Florida, the Forest Service estimates that more than 1.2 million acres of our national forests need immediate reforestation – that’s an area the size of Delaware.
This need and the numerous benefits that come from healthy forests are the main reasons the National Forest Foundation launched a campaign to plant 50 million trees across our national forests. Together with the Forest Service and partners like Filson, we are working to replant areas that have been burned or affected by insect infestations, disease or other natural causes. We plant only native trees, grown from seeds sourced at the right elevation and latitude. Professional tree-planting crews work efficiently and effectively in remote, rugged terrain.
Many of the benefits of reforestation are easy to measure: clean water, improved wildlife habitat, blackened forests turning green again. Others are harder to quantify: the legacy of healthy forests for generations to come, the power of collective action, the knowledge that we can impact our public lands for the better.
Of course, not all fires are bad, something Aaron and I chatted about on our walk down from the lookout. Forests need fire to recycle nutrients, clear out deadfall and fuel, and even to regenerate. But some fires are so severe that forests need us to step in when they burn too hot. The fate of the fire we spotted remained a question, and we felt a mix of optimism and anxiety, shared, no doubt, by the fire managers tasked with leveraging the benefits of fire while reducing the risks to life and property. I felt proud of the work that the NFF does and grateful for the supporters who have planted trees, restored trails, and shared in our successes. Sound public-lands management requires us all to actively participate in our own way, and the NFF facilitates that participation.
Every action makes a difference. Help us plant a tree and grow a forest. Learn more at NationalForests.org/50million.