When the smoke clears and the rhetoric subsides, the simple fact is that fire is as much a part of forest ecology as rain and snow. It feeds the circle of life.
After decades of intense fire suppression, Westerners are beginning to come to grips with the fact that many of the forests in their backyards are overgrown, tangled and in need of a good burn to clean the mess and renew the circle of life.
But today's fires are taking on new characteristics. Because of a century of fire fighting, there is more fuel, and fires are burning hotter and bigger. Along with increasing populations in the rural West, there are some places where people can't afford to let Mother Nature manage her own affairs.
And that presents a problem.
"We can't cut our way out of the problem. We can't burn our way out. We can't suppress, and we can't walk away," said Stephen Pyne, an Arizona State University professor who has written two books on America's fire management practices.
Pyne, the featured speaker at a two-day conference on forest health and wildfires last Thursday and Friday in Boise, said global warming is probably another of the key causes of increasing fire activity across the West. As the world warms, precipitation patterns are changing, and drier forests are more burn-prone and disease-prone.
Fire managers would do well to concentrate efforts on the reduction of global warming, he said.
The conference, sponsored by the Andrus Center for Public Policy, The Idaho Statesman and the U.S. Forest Service, covered an incredibly disparate range of opinions and topics, from refocusing the mission of the U.S. Forest Service to relearning the basic tenants of democracy. The central theme, however, was to ask the question: How can we improve forest health?
Despite Pyne's grand scheme admonition about global warming, managers on the Sawtooth National Forest believe they are on the road to implementing a plan that will help deal with the tangle of fuels in their domain.
The Sawtooth example is a case study of many of the management practices conference participants suggested implementing, such as forest thinning near populated areas and institution of let-burn policies in remote areas.
Though all forest types, regions and even watersheds are unique, the Sawtooth National Forest is in some ways representative of many Western regions. Most of the forest has not burned in decades, and it is increasingly susceptible to disease and a large conflagration.
In the Sawtooth Valley, mountain pine beetles have swept across the landscape killing millions of aged lodgepole pine trees and leaving entire forests of tinder-dry trees behind.
In the Big Wood River Valley, Douglas fir beetles and a parasite called dwarf mistletoe have killed many trees, though on a much smaller scale than in the Sawtooth Valley.
The beetles and parasites are naturally occurring and endemic to the ecosystems, but decades of fire suppression combined with recent warm temperatures have left the forests aged and vulnerable, said Sawtooth National Forest North Zone Fire Management Officer Bill Murphy.
"I know our forests are in a world of hurt," agreed Matt Filbert, a fuels planner for the forest. "The future for us, both on the Ketchum Ranger District and the SNRA, is fire use and prescribed fire intermingled with plenty of timber sales."
Last fall, the SNRA began to implement a fuels reduction plan in areas where mountain pine beetle-stricken trees encroached on homes and private properties. The so-called Red Tree Fuels Reduction Project was met with approval from Central Idahoans.
"There seems to be a lot of common ground and agreement on Red Tree I," Monahan said.
Red Tree II, which is still on the drafting table, could be a different matter, she said. Consensus may be more difficult to find when managers release the forest-wide analysis, which will include a study on historic fire behavior in the region, the state of forest health across the region and proposed treatments for areas where forests are in disrepair.
Part of the Sawtooth's plan will include letting remote parts of the forest burn naturally. It's a practice that's already used in the Sawtooth Wilderness Area, and it could be instituted elsewhere as early as next summer.
"Some of the country in the northern White Clouds needs to get some fire back in there," said Sawtooth National Forest Supervisor Ruth Monahan. "I think we have some places on the Sawtooth the public will support us on."
On the Ketchum Ranger District, forest rangers are planning a large-scale fuel reduction project in Warm Springs canyon, where most of the forest has not seen a significant fire in more than 100 years.
"We're in a situation where all that time, with 100 to 200 years of fuel buildup—now we're trying to open up the stand, at least where it's up against the homes," Murphy said.
But making those kinds of decisions is a small part of the big picture, and that picture is framed by the Forest Service's history in fire suppression, logging and a perceived lack of trustworthiness, conference participants said.
U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, was among the conference participants who said decisions about forest health need to be made collaboratively. The polarization has got to stop, he said.
"We will have to work extremely hard on consistency and sustainability to make sure we're doing all the right things in all the right places," he said.
Monahan said one of the key lessons she took away from the conference was the need for the Forest Service to have a meaningful dialogue with the country's citizens. That is something managers are striving for with Red Tree II and associated projects, she said.
"We are probably closer together than we are far apart," she said.
Filbert agreed, and he said he was pleased to hear conference panelists note some of the nuances involved with managing for forest health.
"My gosh, I think people are starting to understand the complexities of what we're dealing with," he said. "Not every stand is the same, and not every forest is the same."
In summarizing the conference, former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus and chairman of the Andrus Center for Public Policy, called for more dialogue among people and groups with opposing points of view.
"We have not been communicating with one another," he said. "There must be collaboration. Otherwise we will go on as we have been, and the resource will deteriorate."