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Just a century ago, nearly two thirds of the country was forested with little evidence of man’s presence, other than logging operations and an occasional road. Today, however, the forested landscape has seen enough alterations to where an aggressive management system is much needed. One of the largest makeovers to the landscape is from the result of wildfires.

For thousands of years, wildfires have shaped the structure of our national forests, especially in the western United States. Unfortunately, in the second half of the 20th century, a fire suppression program has, to some extent, gone about it in the wrong way. Everyone’s favorite icon is Smokey Bear and has been since he was created in the 1930’s. So how could fires be good at the same time? There is a difference between a harmful, environmentally degrading fire and one that does well for the forest. Due to ever-increasing limitations on forest management in the federal forests, trees with a high growth rate have grown together so much to where ladder fuels build up and the smallest spark can set thousands of acres in flames in a matter of hours. Environmental laws passed in the last few decades have restricted logging and thinning in many areas that are now more fire-prone than ever before. With changes in weather patterns including more frequent droughts and lower snow packs than normal, forests in the west have suffered from disease and insect manifestations, therefore increasing chances for large destructive fires.

Forest diseases have also been on the increase and mostly because of tighter fire suppression laws and limitations on thinning dense stands of trees. A prescribed fire is one that is controlled, given the adequate conditions and, therefore mimics the natural occurrence of wildfire. The fire burns the duff layer which consists of organic material such as moss and leaf litter and helps replenish the nutrients that were originally present. The great Yellowstone fires of 1988 have aroused many agencies to regroup and resolve past fire suppression tactics in order to prevent more catastrophic fires in the future. National Park policy includes minimal intrusions of man and since much of Yellowstone National Park is still vast roadless wilderness, the passing of the 1964 Wilderness Act states that no motorized vehicles or mechanical equipment shall cross wilderness area boundaries. However, when wilderness areas experience lightning caused fires, fire fighters tackle dangerous conditions in remote places to control the blazes from spreading into managed lands and eventually, civilization. It is in the hands of congress and the president to make amendments to the Wilderness Act and fire suppression strategies.

In conclusion, forest fires are an unpleasant sight, releasing smoke into the upper atmosphere, scarring beautiful stands of virgin timber and destroying wildlife and ecosystems for many years, even decades. Nature bounces back, slowly but surely.