President Theodore Roosevelt's decision to set aside vast tracts of western highland forests was in response to widespread exploitation by logging operations that began to sweep across the West in the late 1870s. He specifically intended for these "forest reserves" to ensure watershed protection and wildlife preservation. Since that time, varying political, social, economic and scientific factors have resulted in changes in forest management policies that have had a variety of intended and unintended consequences.
Gifford Pinchot became head of the Division of Forestry in 1898 and under President Roosevelt was named Chief Forester of the redefined U.S. Forest Service. National forest management was guided by Pinchots principle, the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run. During this era, the term "conservation" was used to describe the use of natural resources wisely and efficiently, as opposed to "preservationism," the protection of intact wilderness areas from development, a sentiment that was still uncommon, but growing. During his government service, the number of national forests increased from 32 in 1898 to 149 in 1910 for a total of 193 million acres.
The indiscriminate cutting practices of the late 1800s and early 1900s gave way to selective logging by the mid-1900s, and even-aged management from the 1960s through the 1980s. Modern silviculture practices emphasize more selective, uneven-aged cutting, but even in the 1980s forest harvests tended to degrade the forest and its habitats by removing all old-growth trees and building extensive road networks. Today logging on public lands on the Colorado Plateau is virtually at a standstill under a hail of litigation.
The active suppression of all fires in forests by management agency personnel began about 1910, but two decades of intensive livestock grazing had already caused natural surface fires to virtually cease. A climatic pulse of good moisture in the first few decades of the 20th century led to forests with far more trees than before. Today many ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forests on the Colorado Plateau are overrun with "doghair thickets," dense clusters of stunted trees infested with bark beetles, fungi, and dwarf mistletoe. Fire, when it does occur, has begun to be intense and, more and more frequently, catastrophic.
Old-growth forests have virtually disappeared from the Colorado Plateau, and, until 20 years ago, snags (dead trees) were systematically removed as fire and forest health hazards. Large-diameter snags serve important ecological roles as cavity-nesting sites for many breeding birds and several species of bats.
Today we are undergoing a revolution in forest management policy and, to a lesser, extent, practices. "Smoky the Bear Was Wrong," reads one bumper sticker, as consensus builds that a combination of controlled burning and mechanical thinning is not only necessary, but essential. Many forest land managers fear that ultimately it will be Natureseriously out of balancewho will set policy, in the form of immense regional wildfires.
See also: Ponderosa Pine Fire Ecology
Changed Southwestern Forests: Resource effects and management remedies. Over 150 years of occupancy by northern Europeans has markedly changed vegetative conditions in the Southwest. Less fire due to grazing and fire suppression triggered a shift to forests with very high tree densities, which in turn contributed to destructive forest fires. Options to deal with these changes include prescribed fire, thinning and timber harvest to mimic natural disturbances and conditions. However, there are barriers to implementing these activities on a scale large enough to have a significant benefit. Adapted from a published journal article by Marlin Johnson.
Contribution of Roads to Forest Fragmentation. Increasingly, previously extensive, continuous tracts of forest are being reduced to widely dispersed patches of remnant forest vegetation by logging and road-building, but few measures of the effects of roads on forest fragmentation are available. This study looks at the importance of roads in delineating and quantifying landscape structure, including the proportion of the landscape occupied by edge habitat, and compares the effects of roads and clearcut logging on forest fragmentation. Adapted from a published journal article by Rebecca A. Reed et al.
Where have all the grasslands gone? Numerous ecological studies across the Southwest have documented the decline in herbaceous vegetation (grasses and non-woody flowering plants) while forests thicken and brush invades. Documenting the changes in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico, ecologist Craig Allen considers the evidence that these patterns are tied to changes in land use history, primarily livestock grazing and fire suppression.
References and Resources:
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