Transforming Forests with Good Intentions


Forests under Fire: a Century of Ecosystem Mismanagement in the Southwest. Huggard, C. J., and A. R. Gómez , editors . 2001 . The University of Arizona Press , Tucson, AZ . 307 pp. $40.00. ISBN 0-8185-1775-4 .

When I first agreed to review this book, from the title I expected to read about fire-management policies, the pros and cons of prescribed burning, and how historical fire-suppression management has created a management nightmare. What I discovered instead was a more comprehensive approach to the history of management of national forests in the Southwest United States. This book contains nine chapters, which take a variety of approaches to describing how the people of the Southwest have interacted with wild forests in their mountainous areas above the drier lowlands. The history of these forests over the last century is traced through examination of the social interactions, changes in attitudes, and strengths, weaknesses, and evolution of multiple users, all in a context of changes within society as a whole. From the preface, one perspective for this collection is the “inherent conflict between people and their environment” and the attempts to find “equitable balance between multiple use and conservation.” Overall, the book seems clearly intended to document the historical transformations of our national forests that have occurred over the last century and to leave us with a picture of how current policies are struggling against multiple interests to preserve forests from complete degradation.

During the time covered, the U.S. Forest Service was established within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. To some extent, Forests Under Fire is about the evolution of this federal agency. Overall, I ended up with a much greater appreciation for this holistic assessment of national forest management than I would have predicted. From this perspective, I give the book a strong recommendation.

At the same time, the book does not fit neatly into any other category. Ecologists, environmental policymakers, conservationists, ranchers, and forest users of all types will find the book useful for its comprehensive approach and historical context. Even though well documented, the book is not aimed at any one group in particular, but instead takes a relatively balanced historical approach through all the chapters, even though this is an edited book representing the ideas of nine different people and backgrounds. That does not mean that criminal exploitation is not laid bare. The University of Arizona suffers in a chapter documenting its political bullying to bypass the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973 to obtain sites for observatories in endangered animal habitat. But the only advocacy in this book is in the background. It focuses on the forests themselves and on how we have interacted with them, and it illustrates the ways in which they have been exploited. In the end, an ecosystem-management approach is advanced that will preserve forests under new types of use that will affect the systems in different ways.

The first three chapters provide case studies of the social history of local peoples, their interaction with forests as a source of income, and the role of government. Arthur R. Gómez focuses on the history of Apache logging in northern Arizona. Gómez describes the development of local Apache-owned companies, their interaction with Anglos with money and expertise, and conflicts between the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Forest Service. Duane A. Smith recounts the history of McPhee, a planned lumber town in the southwest portion of Colorado that has now disappeared beneath a reservoir. Finally, Suzanne S. Forrest's chapter considers the development of the Vallecito Federal Sustained-Yield Unit, a post–World War II designation intended to help local people simultaneously earn a living while tying their success to the forest's resilience to exploitation. Together, these chapters illustrate competing management strategies coming from the Forest Service, along with the perspectives of the people living with or in the forests. Often, good approaches simply died because of events not under local control, such as a series of bad weather years, the crash of the economy in the 1930s, or war. I found these chapters interesting, but less so than the remainder of the book.

The next two chapters provide a history of management approaches in the context of grazing and the development of the first wilderness area in the United States. A discussion of the evolution of management policy is continued by Diana Hadley in a chapter about grazing in the forest lands near the Mexican border in what is now the Coronado National Forest. Allotments for grazing are well illustrated, as are changes in Forest Service management philosophy as different scientific concepts became incorporated. Droughts and the depression of the 1930s provided historical contingencies to management, as did slowly shifting policies. Christopher J. Huggard provides a profile of Aldo Leopold in his early years as he worked in the forests of the Southwest. I found this chapter particularly interesting because of my own inclinations, and Huggard does a good job showing the evolution of Leopold's conservation thinking, his efforts toward establishing the first wilderness area (Gila Wilderness Area), some spectacular errors, and the complexities of balancing multiple interests and philosophies.

In these earlier chapters, conflicts between various interests are well described. Interactions with Washington, D.C. and differences in world views all are clear influences as the histories become increasingly recent. The next three chapters, a history of wildfire policy by John Herron, a recent history of ecosystem management in the forests of southern Utah by Thomas G. Alexander, and a history by Paul W. Hirt of the University of Arizona's exploitation of the Mount Graham, all bring the conflicts center stage. Management of national forests always has been subject to strong politics, but the number of groups and the furor of their advocacy have increased greatly in the past 30–40 years, and these chapters each explain them effectively. Herron recounts the history of fire policy, from the early fire-suppression advocates and some notable detractors, through federal expansion with the Conservation Corps program and post–World War II aggressive fire-fighting techniques, to the final realization in the last two decades that fire has to be a part of forest management. Alexander's chapter, in particular, demonstrates the shifting emphases of forest supervisors and the public as well as the conflicts involved in managing these systems. Alexander documents how, like extractive groups in the past, current advocacy groups for off-road recreation or environmental protection, among others, can pressure, delay, and interfere with ecosystem-management decisions. Hirt's chapter about the Mount Graham red squirrel and the conflict between the U.S. Forest Service and politicians pulls together a condensed but uncomfortable story. This chapter reveals the realities of the difficulties of conservation when any group with political muscle—in this case the University of Arizona, a supposed enlightened institution, acts in its own best interest to get what it wants regardless of who loses.

The final chapter by Hal K. Rothman is an overview. Although a little too short, it does provide an effective framework from which to view the history provided and discusses directions for the future. The role of the Southwest forests as experimental areas (and ironically as leaders in management policies and “dead-end” places for “career-ending positions”) gives the history a special perspective. While lumber and other extractive companies have receded in importance, off-road vehicle use, expansion of ski resorts, and other recreational uses represent the current cultural exploitation of our national forests.

The individual chapters will vary in their appeal depending on the reader's own background and interests. But overall this book provides a better stimulus than many others I have read for a reassessment of national policies governing management of natural resources. Too often calls for reassessment come from groups with narrow self-interests and are thus easily overlooked. This collection of historical case studies is convincing because of the multiple perspectives and the general balance provided. The transformation of our forests during the last century is clear. The policies governing those transformations were well meaning at the time. Together, this collection advocates a more comprehensive ecosystem-management approach. We can only hope that results match intention in this round.