By Ron Baker
"Let us give nature a chance. she knows her business better than we
- Michel de Montaigne
Mohonk Preserve is a 6,500 acre privately-owned nature preserve in
southeastern New York State. It is divided into two parcels, one between
the villages of New Paltz and High Falls; and the other located in the
Shawangunk Mountains west of New Paltz.
In Autumn 2005, the managers of the preserve initiated the
destructive practice of “controlled burning” on preserve lands. Two
grass fires were conducted in mid-April, and a more severe burn was
planned for this Autumn. The managers’ reasons, as is true on other
natural lands where fire management is employed, are based on faulty and
misunderstood principles of ecology.
Fire management at Mohonk Preserve presents a microcosm of the
overall problem of prescribed fires (“controlled burning”), and it
illustrates the biological/ecological destructiveness of this practice.
Some of the worst crimes are not legally considered crimes. One tragic
example is the use of fire on natural lands. After many years of closely
studying Nature, I can explain why so-called fire management is
unscientific, non-ecological, and biologically destructive.
Local fire proponents say that fire has played a major role in
shaping the forest ecology of Shawangunk Ridge. During the past 60
years, however, fires there were infrequent and mostly confined to small
areas. Lightning-set fires are rare in southeastern New York; most are
due to human carelessness or deliberate arson. Thus, the majority of
Shawangunk fires were not natural.
One of the goals of fire managers at Mohonk Preserve is to keep
fields open to maintain plant and animal species. But preserve them how
and for what purpose? And which species? Nothing is static in Nature.
Nature is in continuous evolutionary progression toward a climax state,
but this is seldom reached anymore because of human interference. When
open areas in wooded terrain are cleared for building or farming some
species of plants and animals disappear while new ones slowly move in.
Is the use of fire in fields some kind of solution or is it part of the
problem of failing to live in harmony with Nature?
Mohonk Preserve has used a tractor with a rake-like attachment that
cuts plants and mutilates saplings, creating an eyesore. Then burning
creates an even greater eyesore! Aesthetic beauty is usually an
indicator of a healthy natural ecosystem and vice-versa. The narrow
objectives of some people are often at odds with what is best for nature
from a total ecological perspective.
LEHIGH ACRES, Florida (AP) — Two boys were charged Sunday with setting
weekend brush fires that have destroyed or damaged more than two dozen
homes and burned more than 1,500 acres in southwest Florida, authorities
The boys, ages 10 and 12, were arrested and charged as juveniles with
intentional and reckless burning of land, a third-degree felony, Lee
County sheriff’s Lt. Robert Forrest said. Authorities were seeking a
A Lack Of Empathy With Nature
Fire proponents claim that controlled burning recycles nutrients. But
there is evidence that even ground fires destroy micro-organisms in the
upper layer of soil that are essential for healthy plant growth. These
may include diminished quantities of important nitrogen-fixing and
ammonia-oxidizing bacteria. Even a single controlled fire can cause a
substantial decline in the vital upper layer of humus, and general
depletion of soil quality. Depleted soil is less productive, so plant
life deteriorates. And since plant-eating animals are only as healthy as
the quality of their food supply, fires adversely affect both plant and
Since much burning is done in the Spring, many toads, salamanders,
mice, moles, chipmunks, snakes, and insects are killed. The smoke drives
away nesting birds. Those animals that return find their territory
radically altered, berry-producing plants dead and charred ground
surface. Anne Muller, the publisher of The Binocular, found a half-dead
turtle with its shell burned as a result of a deliberately-set field
fire. Many fire proponents consider wildlife casualties a justifiable
As for the many kinds of oak that fire proponents at Mohonk say they
want to preserve, they fail to explain how controlled burning will aid
oak regeneration by opening the forest canopy without killing some of
the trees they want to save.
Finally, there is the argument that a buildup of flammable materials
on the forest floor could cause a serious wildfire, endangering homes
and property. This is possibly a mere canard intended to gain public
support for controlled burning. Naturally there are some people who are
careless with fire. There are also mentally disturbed incendiaries. But
why should professed ecologists compete with these people? Fire
suppression is the reason we have local fire departments.
Fire management at Mohonk Preserve is a mistaken experiment. Some of
the preserve’s administrators privately admit that they are uncertain
about potential long-term effects of controlled burns. In any case, both
short-term and long-term effects are detrimental to the normal processes
The notion that most animals can run or fly away from forest fires is
inaccurate. Animals who live in nests above ground or low in trees are
especially vulnerable to fires. Even healthy, large mammals who might
normally run clear have been trapped by shifting winds and fire
direction, and confused and suffocated by smoke. Bison, bear, moose, and
elk were found among the dead animals in fires at Yellowstone National
The Real Reasons For Fire Management
One reason that fire management is increasingly advocated is that
fire is a comparatively cheap and easy method of “managing” forests and
wildlife, and thus it’s adopted by some federal and state forest and
wildlife officials who don’t want to spend the time, money, and effort
on alternative procedures. This principle applies at Mohonk Preserve,
and it is supported by several “conservation” groups, including the NYS
Department of Environmental Conservation, Open Space Institute, and The
The second reason for the advocacy of fire management goes to the
heart of our cultural value system. Many Eastern religions advocate the
sanctity of life. They contend that the earth is a living organism and
our treatment or mistreatment of it has positive and negative effects.
The traditional Western worldview holds that Nature exists for human
benefit. Therefore, people have the right to manipulate it in whatever
ways they deem expedient.
The conflict between these two philosophies is between those who value
the lives of individual plants and animals, and those who view Nature as
a material entity. Unfortunately, the utilitarian concept of Nature is
inherent in forestry and wildlife science programs at colleges, and
reflects the practices of modern science and technology.
On the basis of available evidence and my own observations of the
effects of fire on woodlands, I am certain that controlled burning is
destructive. If the managers of Mohonk Preserve wish to honor their
motto, “Saving the Land for Life,” they should reconsider their policy
of controlled burns. Because of fire management at Mohonk Preserve, I
felt compelled not to renew my preserve membership in 2006.
Fire management has become increasingly reckless in recent years.
This is especially true on many public lands, theoretically held in
trust for all Americans. The U.S. Forest Service has set crown fires
over wide areas of coniferous forests to kill infestations of insects.
This is unnecessary, as most infestations are cyclical, running their
course after several years and causing limited damage. “Stand replacing”
fires kill all the trees in an area so as to repopulate it with other
species. Napalm has even been used on forests in Colorado by the U. S.
Fish & Wildlife Service to clear migration corridors for trophy-hunted
In Texas, 2600 acres were bulldozed and set afire with chemicals and
gasoline, purportedly to control the pine beetle. Forestry personnel now
admit that the pine beetle had already completed its natural life cycle
two years earlier and was no longer a threat!
|One indication that the deliberate use of fire in many natural areas is
being officially promoted is the appearance in Catskill State Park of a
new billboard showing Smokey the Bear telling us “Only You Can Prevent
Wildfires.” The message is clear: Wildfires are bad, but controlled
burning is acceptable.
Controlled burns do not create conditions conducive to natural
evolution of plant and animal life. They destroy ecosystems to conform
to human goals that are limited and sometimes exploitative. While we
can’t protect forests from natural disruptions, we can protect them from
the destructive effects of fire. We should allow forests to evolve as
Nature intended. Those who love Nature must actively oppose the
dangerous, destructive practice of fire management on natural lands.
This article was extensively researched for accuracy. To read
it in its entirety, with references, please go to the C.A.S.H. Courier
website at www.cashwildwatch.org.
Ron Baker is author of The American Hunt Myth. He
homesteaded in the Adirondacks for 27 years and was a frequent
contributor to the Backwoods Journal, a publication for
homesteaders and naturalists.