Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Wild or Beautiful--or Both

The handling of the Pagami Creek Fire has raised all sorts of interesting questions about wilderness recreation and forest management. The fire, which might easily have been put out in August, was left to burn in the interests of keeping the area a wilderness, and eventually raged out of control. It was still only 50% under control, the last time I checked, and 877 people were up north battling it.

A few days ago the Star-Tribune ran an editorial by local outdoor writer Greg Breining, hammering home the idea (at considerable length) that “wilderness” is a human construct which has never existed in nature. One of the points he makes in the course of his peroration is that fires have always raged across the countryside; some were lightning-driven, but many were started by Indians.

Perhaps wilderness is a human invention. If so, it’s a good one. I suspect the only problem is that we define it in a scientific rather a poetic or spiritual way, which makes us prone to eminently “rational” decisions that lead to absurdly counter-productive results.

The Indians (read here Ojibwe, Dakota, Ho-Chunk, Huron, Crow) may well have burned the countryside from time to time, but they also had a seemingly endless list of “sacred places,” which are often the same places from which we white folk now draw spiritual sustenance—rivers, waterfalls, islands, promontories, and remote, lofty places with commanding views. I couldn’t say for sure, but I doubt if they burned their sacred places to the ground in pursuit of game.

Alongside the scientific rationale for letting wilderness fires burn because it’s “natural,” we invariably hear the argument—not quite the same thing—that forest fires rejuvenate the forest. Perhaps we ought to call this the “silver lining.” The forest will be an intractable tangle of stubby underbrush and look like hell for fifty years…but the moose will like it!

Our best bet, in dealing with these things, might be to admit, first off, that we consider the BWCA wilderness (and other such places) a spiritual resource, not because they’re technically “wild,” but because they’re uncommonly beautiful. Controlled burns could be conducted when conditions are perfect, resulting in a healthy and diverse forest that visitors would return to in great numbers. And it would all be eminently “natural” because we humans, after all, are a part of nature, too.

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