Jim Peterson: Is there anything we can do to protect our forests and communities?

Editor’s Note: We are pleased to be one of the papers to publish the first installment of a column by Jim Petersen. Our readers will recognize Jim  from his work at Evergreen Magazine. Many Evergreen articles have ended up on our pages.

We know of no one who can better speak to the ongoing issues of forest management, an issue that is top of mind along the Eastern Slope of the Rockies as, year after year, our forests burn.

Please reach out to Jim at

jim@evergreenmagazine.com with your thoughts.

By Jim Petersen | fairfieldsuntimes.com | Nov 17, 2022 Updated Nov 17, 2022

Gus Wolfe photo documented some of the loss brought on by the 1988 Canyon Creek Fire. ©Gus Wolfe/guswolfe.com

Another deadly wildfire season filled with carcinogenic smoke. Is there anything we can do to protect our forests? Our families? Our communities?

Many people believe we should leave this problem to “nature” to solve. But think about that for a moment…

Nature doesn’t care about us, so if there are things we need or want from forests, like clean air and water or abundant fish and wildlife habitat, how will we get them if we refuse to interact with nature?

Change – the forces of nature – are constantly at work in our forests. Big changes, like wildfires, are immediately visible. More subtle shifts, brought on by presence of insects and diseases are less visible in their early stages, but eventually power big changes, like wildfire.

Forest stewardship – active management – includes planting, pruning, thinning, harvesting, and replanting. It mimics the forces of nature but in a carefully planned and safe manner.

But thinning – the logging associated with responsibly caring for forests – is messy in the moment. It disrupts familiar forest vistas, fostering public anger and concern.

There are reasons for concern. Some grounded in questionable science, others grounded in political decisions designed to protect forests that are putting our nation’s public forest and rangeland legacies at greater risk.

The forces of nature have been running amuck on forest and rangeland that we love for about 30 years. Insect and disease infestations and subsequent wildfire have overrun more than half of the West’s 193-million-acre federal forest and rangeland estate.

Augusta nature photographer Gus Wolfe shot this view of the 1988 fire damage from Haystack Butte, near Augusta, Montana.Gus Wolfe guswolfe.com
Augusta nature photographer Gus Wolfe shot this view of the 1988 fire damage from Haystack Butte, near Augusta, Montana. Gus Wolfe guswolfe.com

Because these lands belong to all of us, they have become the focal point of spirited public debate about the true meaning of the word “conservation.”

Does conservation require that we stand aside while nature incinerates our forests and rangelands? Or does conservation demand that we use the tools active science-based management provides to help us reduce the risks big wildfires pose?

Paradoxically, “prescribed” or purposefully set fire is a safe and effective tool when used in combination with tree thinning, particularly in projects designed to improve forest health and growth by first removing diseased trees before big wildfires strike.

Proponents of the “leave it to nature” approach point out that big fires do the same thing thinning and prescribed fire does. There is some truth to their assertion, but the recovery process can take 200 to 300 years. This versus two to three years for a forest to recover from thinning and prescribed burning.

This may seem like a simple choice, but it isn’t. To protect forests, Congress has erected a Byzantine regulatory process that has contributed to dramatic increases in the size, frequency and destructive power of wildfires.

In the coming months, “About that…” writers will be exploring options for unwinding decades of political and environmental carnage that began with the best of intentions.

About that….is a syndicated news service of the non-profit Evergreen Foundation. Learn more about us at www.evergreenmagazine.com. Jim can be reached at jim@evergreenmagazine.com

We thank the Sun Times for its interest and assistance.