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Endangered Species And Fire

Up In Smoke

... The post-mortem on the fires should lead to the most brutal review of the federal Endangered Species Act in its 30 year history. Nowhere more so than in southern California has more time and money has been invested in the idea that government bureaucrats (working with environmental activists, using the money scalped from landowners) can build a better nature than local governments and the market would otherwise deliver. The stubborn fact is California has never had fires of this magnitude. Now that the federal government is running a huge portion of land use, disaster strikes.

... The key recognition: The species that live close to humans are the ones that are faring the best. When the chips are down, we are species-centric, and rush to save the lives and property of human beings. Habitat conservation planners would be well advised to remember that the proximity of human housing to species preserves isn't a threat to those preserves, it is a guarantee of active and species-saving management.

First, the agreement: There are cases in which endangered species protection has compromised fire management. The cause, though, is taking a short-term biocentric perspective -- in which the lives of individual organisms are paramount -- over a long-term ecocentric perspective -- in which the health of the environment is maintained, even if it involves the death of some individuals now. One of the most interesting presentations at last spring's AAG Annual Meeting was about how this played out for a certain species of snake in the southwest. The EPA refused permission to burn snake habitat on the US side of the border because they didn't want to risk killing these extremely rare snakes. Meanwhile, on the Mexican side of the border, the snakes were common because their habitat had been allowed to burn periodically. The return of Kirtland's Warbler to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is a recent success story for reversing this kind of mismanagement.

However, Hewitt's prescription -- less federal control over land and more people living close to protected areas -- is off the mark. First, note that he doesn't have much actual evidence for the harm done by government non-management. His beliefs about the benefits of private property lead him to presume that such evidence will be found (not an unreasonable thing to do), then he bases his argument for the benefits of private property on that hypothetical evidence. (I recall seeing data that demonstrated the opposite conclusion -- that fire management is done poorly on private land as compared to public -- but I can't locate it at the moment.)

One important factor that he (like Gregg Easterbrook) overlooks is the geographic patterning of development and wildlands. His last paragraph seems to be praise for the increasing penetration of human habitation into wild areas. This fragmentation of the landscape creates an endangered species problem. Much is made of the adaptations that some plants, like lodgepole pine and banksia, have to fire. But for many plants and pretty much all animals, the main mechanism for recovery after a fire is to spread from unburned patches of land back into the burned ones. This kind of regeneration is stymied when the burned areas are cut off from refuge areas by lawns and golf courses with impoverished biodiversity and many exotic species. This same process occurs with any event that could cause a local drop in a species' population.

The conservation measures that Hewitt decries can be a method of slowing development, and thus preserving more contiguous habitats. This is good for the environment if such areas are managed well. The kind of fire control policies carried out around settled areas are second-best -- and sometimes even worse from an ecological standpoint than a fire that gets out of hand and burns both the forest and someone's house.


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