Friday, May 21, 2010

Friday photo

Mt. St. Helens, Washington. April 2000.

By now, you should have been reminded that Tuesday was the 30th anniversary of the Mt. St. Helens eruption, the best-studied volcanic eruption in history. If only the people of Pompeii had known what we know now, they ... probably would have died anyway. After all, you have to live somewhere. Still, this is an incredible natural laboratory for studying how volcanoes work.

It's also an incredible natural laboratory for understanding how nature responds to highly destructive events, the sort of laboratory Yellowstone became after its infamous forest fires eight years later. The gradual restoration after a scene of intense destruction is almost unbelievable - you really do have to observe it before you start believing. Even though you know that those beautiful mountains of Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Ranier, and Mt. Hood have all done this before, it's easy to doubt that St. Helens will ever look so good again. Likewise, even though the mountain forests have done without Smokey Bear for eons and were beautiful when humans arrived, many Yellowstone-lovers couldn't come to grips with the undeniable fact that it's all happened before, will happen again, and the ugly phase isn't forever.

The laissez-faire approach to nature management hasn't been with us for very long, and has often been contested -- especially after 1988, when the National Park Service was reviled for fiddling while Yellowstone burned.* And the hands-off approach was certainly never the policy of the US Forest Service, which from the beginning has managed its forests for timber production. That's why I found my visit to Mt. St. Helens such an amusing surprise: the USFS had got religion, so to speak. The signs and exhibits explaining why nature should be allowed to take its course were relentless, and far more heavy-handed and didactic than anything I've ever seen from the NPS (and I've been in a lot of national parks). "More Catholic than the Pope," as the saying goes. Here I was, a true believer already, and I felt like a few dozen propaganda-bludgers had been let loose on me. Ah, they're so earnest when they're new to the faith.

Here's a time lapse video showing how much vegetation has returned in the last 30 years. Especially watch how the huge mudflow in the upper left disappears from view:

* To be fair, the NPS abandoned that policy in mid-summer, before the peak fire season even arrived, and fought the fires aggressively. Also to be fair, the Silver Gate and Cooke City people were angry because the fires threatened their towns. A 1989 review of the natural fire regime policy resulted in only one criticism - the NPS needed to allow a larger buffer zone near the borders and be more cautious about protecting the gateway communities.


James Hanley said...

I remember when I went back to Yellowstone in '89, people asking me, "But is there anything left?" My snarky response was, "Nope, the geysers, the rivers, the mountains, the animals--all burned up." That was probably unfair, but then, anybody who expects differently from me doesn't know me well.

The laissez faire attitude of the Park Service was a classic example of over-reacting to the errors of a prior policy. It wasn't only that their former policy of stopping every fire had resulted in too much fuel accumulating, making an abrupt shift to the leave-it-be policy dangerous in the short-term. It was also that in such a heavily trafficed area, a totally natural policy didn't take into account the human effect--simply that fires are more likely where there are more humans. I know they tried to distinguish between natural and human caused fires, but that's a reactive approach. A more foreward looking approach would have been to engage in prescribed burns in areas where human-caused fires were likely, in order to prevent them.

Of course I'm looking at that with hindsight, so it's intended not so much as a criticism but as a regret that our policy development is--inevitably, given human limitations--a process of muddling through from one reaction to the past to another reaction to the past. We can only hope that after enough muddled changes, we eventually learn enough from our mistakes to discern a reasonably functional policy.

Scott Hanley said...

When I left Grand Canyon to go back to Yellowstone in '89, one of my friends kept teasing me, "But it all burned up!" And I would reply, "No, it burned down. Big difference."

It's worth remembering that the Yellowstone fires were far, far outside of anyone's experience then. They expected the occasional forty to fifty thousand acre fire, but no one imagined a complex of multiple fires that eventually added up to some 800,000 acres. You'd have to go back to the 1871 Peshtigo fire to find anything on that scale and that was probably viewed as an unnatural event, if it was considered at all.

I recall that after the fires, our favorite fiction writer, Alston Chase, had a series of newspaper articles declaring, "They were warned this would happen!" Although if you check his book, he only criticized the NPS for expecting more fire than had occurred until then!