Thursday, January 29, 2009

On the Virtues of Living in Town


George Wuerthner

I just got back from the store where I picked up a newspaper and some fresh fruit. Along the way I made a quick stop at the bank where I retrieved some money from the ATM. Since I was just across from the post office, I picked up my mail. And on the way home, I stopped at the cafĂ© to get a cup of coffee and visit with a friend. The “trip” to town was a nice break from sitting in front of a computer and gave me a chance to even socialize a bit. It was possible for me to do all these things without once getting in my vehicle because I live in town. In fact, all the places I visited are within a few blocks of my home.

Though I sometimes use my vehicle when the weather is particularly nasty or time is limited, I can usually do many of my activities by walking or riding a bike if I choose. And living in the shadow of Peak Oil, I’ve come to appreciate the benefits of being in a village, town or city where I can reduce my reliance upon the automobile.

Because I live in town, both of my kids have a freedom that most children lack these days—they can walk to school, to friends, to soccer games, and other events. My daughter tells me that out of 90 kids in her 7th grade, only 4 of them regularly walk to school. The rest ride a bus or are driven by parents. Their lives are highly regulated by the availability of their parents as chaffers or school bus transport. Given how few kids walk to school or any place else any more, it’s no wonder that childhood obesity is such a problem.

The majority of people in my community live out on their one to five acre tracts scattered along the rural roads away from the central village. They believe they are living the American dream or from my perspective the American nightmare. Their homes fragment wildlife habitat and chew up open space. Their septic tanks leach pollution into the local waterways. Worse of all they spend a lot of their free time driving. Driving the kids to school. Driving to the grocery store. Driving to work. Driving to play. Driving just to be driving.

Where I live today is such a contrast from where I thought I would wind up when I was in my twenties. Then it was my dream to live in a remote cabin somewhere in Alaska, and I did so for short periods of time as well as other remote locations around the Rockies. But I always came back to town—either because I needed to work or go to school. After a while I realized that I was tied to town whether I liked it or not.

Over time I actually came to understand that I liked living in town but the real epiphany for me occurred because of an old girlfriend. I was back in Montana going to the University of Montana (I was a perennial student on and off for years). My girlfriend at the time rented a cabin down on the flanks of the Bitterroot Range south of Stevensville. It was a romantic location—you could sit on the front porch of the cabin and take in a good sweep of the valley all the way to the Sapphire Range. It was quiet. There were elk and deer nearby. And, of course, you could ski or hike out the door—as my girlfriend always liked to tell people when she would brag about where she was living.

But she rarely had time to go hiking or skiing. She, like me, was a student which meant that she had to come into town every day to attend class. It would take an hour to get from the cabin to the classroom—assuming the car would start when it was 20 below and the snow wasn’t too deep, and the roads weren’t too slick with ice or snow. She spent about two hours a day commuting from her lovely cabin in the woods to the university and back again. By the time the weekend would roll around and I would ask her to go hiking or skiing, she would often decline. She had to do the laundry, clean the cabin, chop wood, buy the groceries, and sometimes just catch up on the sleep she didn’t get during the week. She didn’t have time to enjoy the woods in her backyard because she spent too much time sitting in a car driving into town and back.

I, on the other hand, lived about four blocks from the campus and could roll out of bed fifteen or twenty minutes before a class, and ride my bike to the campus with time to spare. Since I lived so close to the school, it was easy to use the library, go home for lunch or whatever, and I almost always got most of my studying done during the week so my weekends were often free to explore the Montana countryside.

Since that time, I have always chosen to live in town. And now that I have kids, I’m even more convinced that living in town is the right place to be—because it gives them as well as me, more freedom. In town I can take advantage of all the things that towns can provide kids from the public library to the public swimming pool. There are many other reasons to encourage people to live in town. Studies have shown that it’s far more costly to provide services to people who live outside of communities than those in town. There’s also a loss of community civil life. Plus people who are constantly driving here and there have less time to devote to community endeavors and less time to know their neighbors. And in many parts of the West if you live out of town, you are almost surely on some former big game winter range or in the potential path of a wildfire. If you have to live someplace—think about living in town and/or at least on its edge—both the wildlife and other taxpayers will thank you.

Wildfires and Dead Trees Needed

This is a letter to the Register Guard in Eugene, Oregon responding to a recent letter from Mike Dubrasich, a timber industry advocate.


George Wuerthner

In his January 19th Register Guard guest editorial on forests and fire, Mike Dubrasich, suggests that fire suppression had led to higher fuel loadings, and hence is responsible for the large blazes we have seen around the West in recent years. And he advocates logging as a prescription to "restore" forests to their historic condition. Unfortunately Mr. Dubrasich conflates very different fire regimes into one narrative that inaccurately portrays the causes of recent large blazes as well as the influence that fire suppression may have had on PNW forests.

Only the lowest elevation grasslands, oak savannas and ponderosa pine forests tended to burn frequently and contrary to timber industry rhetoric even these forest occasionally burned in stand replacement fires. Fire suppression may have increased fuels in these forests, but since only a small proportion of our woodlands are of this forest type, the influence of fire suppression is greatly exaggerated.

The bulk of all forest types in the PNW, including most fir, hemlock, spruce, and other mid-higher elevation forests historically burned infrequently and as mixed or high severity stands replacement fires. Because of the naturally long interval between fires--often hundreds of years--fire suppression has had a minimum affect on most forests types since they have not "missed" a fire rotation and there is no unusual fuel buildup.

This is important because the majority of acreage burned annually occurs in higher elevation, longer fire regime kinds of forest types. Large blazes in these forest types cannot be attributed to fire suppression activities, nor are large stand replacement fires "abnormal" or a sign of "unhealthy" forests as timber industry advocates try to portray.

The main factor contributing to large blazes around the West is not fuels, but climatic/weather conditions. The period between the 1940s and 1980s was moister and cooler than previous decades earlier in the century as well as recent decades. This is exactly the same time that people are suggesting fire suppression was effective. But another interpretation is that it was too wet to burn well during that period.

Timber industry proponents try to link fuels with fire, but it is climatic and weather conditions that permit any fuels to burn. If you have extensive drought, coupled with low humidity, high winds, and high temperatures, you can get large blazes—no matter how much or how little fuel you have.The West has been experiencing some of the worst droughts in centuries so it's not surprising that we are seeing large blazes.

The 2002 Biscuit Fire illustrates this finding. Old growth stands and north slopes—the very forest types with the highest fuel loadings and greatest biomass--were the least likely to burn. By contrast younger forests, open savannas of Jeffrey pine and shrub dominated south slopes which had far lower fuel accumulations made up the bulk of acreage charred by the blaze.

Another study found that areas that had been "salvage logged" after the Silver Fire and subsequently reburned in the Biscuit Fire had higher fire severity than unlogged stands, even though these stands obviously had far less biomass (fuel) than unlogged stands.

The explanation is simple—north slopes and old growth forests retained moisture better--and despite the high fuel loads, are more difficult to burn. By contrast, open forests and south slopes exposed to the sun dry out sooner and typically had more "fine" fuels, thus burn better. This is one reason why "thinning" can enhance the chances that a stand will burn because removing trees opens up the forest to higher solar radiation and wind—both of which contribute to fire spread.

A third misconception perpetuated by the timber industry is the idea that dead trees are somehow undesirable and an indicator of "unhealthy" forests. In reality dead trees are the foundation for forest soil productivity. Dead trees are also important for most forest dwelling species—with fully 2/3 of all forest species dependent upon them at some point in their lives. Wildfires, along with insects, are the major agents for producing dead trees and contributors to healthy forests.

Contrary to popular opinion, our managed forests are the ones that are "unhealthy" and "sick". Managed forests typically have less dead trees, and are biologically impoverished and degraded.

The timber industry keeps trying to tell us that all they care about fixing the forests degraded by none other than past forestry practices—and now suggest that we need more logging to fix the problems they created. I am willing to bet if there were no profit in logging our forests, they wouldn't give a hoot about forest health, restoration, wildfires or anything else. It's all a rationalization for exploitation.

Forests have survived for thousands of years with wildfire and insects and they don't need our help to survive or be healthy. I suspect forests live in far more fear of foresters who possess too much hubris, than of any wildfire.