By Daniel B. Botkin
and Robert R. Williams
Forest fires in the drought-stricken West and Southwest received a lot of attention last year, and scenes of several large, destructive fires were widely shown on television. Could this happen elsewhere in the United States?
In early March, columns of smoke rose from the Pine Barrens, visible from the New York and Philadelphia metropolitan areas. One might think these fires are dangerous and should be suppressed, but they were intentionally lit by the Forest Fire Service of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, with more to be lit this spring.
Given the inherent dangers of fire to homes, and remembering Smokey the Bear telling us, "Only you can prevent forest fires," lighting fires near big cities might seem like the last thing a government agency should be doing.
However, light forest fires are a necessity for the Pine Barrens, needed to sustain the natural forests and their biological diversity, and to prevent the kind of devastating, intense wildfires that can damage towns and cities.
The Pine Barrens were considered so important that, in 1978, Congress created the Pinelands National Reserve. This area was not to be a national park, forest, or preserve (untouched by people), but, rather, a working landscape that includes people as part of its ecosystems. Soon thereafter, New Jersey developed a Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan.
Ecologists and foresters know that the forests of the Pine Barrens have burned frequently since they were established after the end of the last ice age 12,500 years ago. The soil is made of sand deposited by the Atlantic Ocean over millennia. Water drains quickly through these soils, producing a dry land lacking necessary nutrients (such as phosphorus and nitrogen) that readily burns. Only tough tree species adapted to the frequent fires and poor soils can persist there - like pitch pine, shortleaf pine, and some oaks. Light periodic fires, with the occasional hotter fire, are as natural as rain or sunshine for these species, and critical to the health and sustainability for these forest ecosystems.
In fact, most forests of America evolved with fires. They were originally started by random, periodic lightning strikes, but perpetuated for thousands of years by Native Americans prior to European settlement. Only in the last few centuries have people changed how fire is used in forests. The fire suppression of the recent past has created a growing fuel load and conditions that are ripe for a really large fire that will result in significant loss of life and property.
Suppression has led to high-intensity, hard-to-control wildfires that are devastating to forest ecosystems and more likely to burn through houses, towns, and cities. Modern prescribed burns in the Pine Barrens by the state Forest Fire Service reduce the fuel load. They demonstrate the way forests should be and need to be managed across our nation.
That rising smoke near the big Eastern metropolitan areas signals both a burgeoning acceptance that some change in the environment is natural, and a spreading recognition that to sustain our resources and to live successfully and symbiotically with our environment, we must accept and even promote these natural changes.
For centuries, people have lived, worked, and played in the Pinelands, all of which is part of the fabric that makes this forest so environmentally, ecologically, and economically unique. Iron has been mined out of the sandy soils. Berries, pine cones, and sphagnum moss have been harvested from the forests. The Barrens have been farmed, fished, and charcoaled for centuries. They supplied lumber for one of America's earliest industries, ship building. New York City and Philadelphia were originally built with wood from the Pine Barrens.
After much analysis and debate, in 2005, the Pinelands Commission's Forestry Advisory Committee stated, "Forestry, if practiced in accordance with sound management practices, can provide wood and wood products and ensure the protection of water quality and critical habitat for wildlife, as well as a way of life and culture that will otherwise soon vanish." Surprising as it may seem, the Pine Barrens are, as they have been since the late 1600s, a place of active and valuable commercial forestry.
Today, in the 21st century, not much is heard about commercial forestry and its role in our lives and our forests in the public or the media. Although the history and products of the Pine Barrens demonstrate that we are a forest-dependent species, our growing urban culture has moved further and further away from a basic understanding of the land and the forests. However, if you breathe air and drink water, you need forests.
We are all part of forest ecosystems, not intruders - even those of us who live in metropolitan areas.