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Controlled Park Fires: A Burning Question

July 06, 1986|RONALD B. TAYLOR | Times Staff Writer

SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK — Amid fire-blackened redwoods deep in the quiet shadows of Giant Forest Grove, 50 people gathered last week to argue whether rangers had erred when they set fire to a 110-acre area of the park last summer.

The fire was part of a controlled burning program under way here that is intended to return the forest to a state similar to the way it was before man started putting out fires in groves of the giant redwood.

Until recently, the 17-year-old burning program was relatively free of controversy. Lately, however, that has changed. The issue is not the use of prescribed burns--park scientists have proven that fire is an essential part of the Sequoia Gigantea ecosystem--but the aesthetics of the process. Critics object to the visual impact of man-set fires in groves of towering trees that are among the oldest living organisms on earth.

Use of Fire Halted

They want the National Park Service to use different techniques in its burning program.

Park officials have halted their use of fire in the park pending a report, expected sometime this fall, by a scientific panel named by the Park Service to resolve the issue.

Among those gathered in Giant Forest Grove were seven scientists on the panel.

They listened to defenders and critics of the burning program who accompanied them.

"This (Broken Arrow) fire was obviously too hot . . . and it got away from them," said one of the critics, Robert Jasperson, attorney for the 45,000 member Save the Redwoods League.

Others were also upset by what they saw and what they heard from rangers during the meetings and walks through the groves. Community college biology professor Sam Pusateri contended that rangers are "damaging and killing the trees you are here to protect."

Fire Scars Abound

Most of the controversy focused on the 1985 burn of 110 acres, less than three miles from Giant Forest Village, a heavily used part of the park. Harsh black fire scars abound in the mixed stand of pine, fir and giant sequoias. Some of the smaller trees are dead or dying, yet underfoot, millions of tiny sequoia seedlings can be seen spouting through the ash.

"We didn't burn down the forest, we just scorched some trees," said Sequoia Park naturalist William Tweed, who believes that the grove's "ultimate beauty" lies in the natural processes of the forest, which include fire. "We have to restore the natural order," he said.

"Fire scars are part of the aesthetics," added Russell D. Butcher of the National Parks and Conservation Assn. Butcher, along with Joe Fontaine, past president of the Sierra Club, supports the park service burning program.

Without fire, the survival of the sequoia groves would be in jeopardy, but fire's aftermath leaves behind scenes that are stark and ugly to people who grew up with the idea--underscored by countless lessons from Smokey the Bear--that forest fires are destructive and should be prevented.

When criticism of the Sequoia burns surfaced several months ago, Howard Chapman, the park ser vice's western regional director, appointed the special advisory panel, chaired by Norman Christensen, a Duke University botany professor. The panel includes experts from Montana University, the University of California and private companies. Its mandate is to review and evaluate the park's prescribed-burn policies.

The park service goal, both here and in Yosemite National Park, where a burning program also is in place, is to return the forests to their "natural" state--defined as the mid-1800s. "We are re-introducing fire into the ecosystem," explained Bruce M. Kilgore, chief resources manager for the park service's western region.

Cleared Forest Floor

Sequoia Giganteas, the massive cousins of the taller, slimmer coastal redwoods, grow only on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada between 6,000 and 8,000 feet. Most are now in public ownership in Yosemite National Park, Calaveras Big Trees State Park, and here, where 161,000 grow on 8,000 acres stretching out over 30 miles of rugged mountain terrain.

For thousands of years before California's settlement, summer lightning storms touched off many small wild fires that burned slowly through the forests without harming the sequoias. These fires cleared the forest floor, thinning out the smaller pine and fir trees, converting downed wood to useable nutrients, and triggering the release of sequoia seeds, Kilgore said.

Cycle Disrupted

Then a century of fire suppression allowed thickets of pine, fir and underbrush to grow and, as these plants died out, the amount of flammable dead wood and debris accumulated on the forest floor. Unnaturally heavy fuel buildups posed a threat of catastrophic fires, and disrupted the sequoia reproductive cycle.

Starting in 1969, scientists and rangers began to cautiously experiment with controlled fires here.

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