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Just what is wilderness anyway?

by Pat Ratliff, Pioneer Press September 27, 2006

By now most of you know I love covering fires and firefighters. It's exciting, it gets me out in the woods, and it's a very important subject. We need to know what's going on in our forests. They are our property I need to remind you.

The government doesn't own them, we do.

In my years covering the fires, I've seen so many remarkable people doing great and honorable things protecting where we live and play. I never have, nor will put down the people doing such a service to us. They put their lives on the line for us on a regular basis.

That said, there seems to be an incredible amount of money being spent on fighting fires this year. Of course, we had a very wet winter last year which makes for a very busy fire season.

What seems to be sticking in my mind is the price being paid fighting fires in Wilderness areas.

I am in agreement that vast areas of forest need to be allowed to burn naturally, but I'm wondering about the state of our Wilderness areas.

I'm not really a wilderness type of guy, I'll admit. I seldom go hiking, and am not into mountain climbing or any of the other wilderness type activities.

Earlier this year, while at the Black Crater Fire near Sisters, Oregon, I had the chance to hike six or seven miles into the wilderness area there. Conditions were, to put it mildly, sickening. Dead and downed beetle kill areas were everywhere. In places 80 and 90 percent of the trees were dead. Bark off, grey in color, the forest was a catastrophe waiting to happen. Those trees that weren't in the process of dying had been dead for years. To make matters worse, the wilderness area borders areas where a great number of people live. No buffer area, just some imaginary line where wilderness supposedly stops and civilization starts.

I've seen a high number of fire reports throughout the west, describing the problems faced on individual fires. The number of fires burning in beetle kill and dead and downed fuel seems quite high.

We get reports on the state of the fires burning in our forests, but what do we know about the forests that aren't burning yet? It seems that too many of our forests need work, that they have been left "au natural" for too long.

What I'm saying might be a contradiction in terms, but a dying forest full of dead dry trees, no matter how natural, does no one any good. There are too many people living in forest settings to just let catastrophic fires burn without intervention. The fact that we are spending millions of dollars fighting fires according to some random "Wilderness Area" restrictions proves just that.

We need to find out the state of our forests. We need to find out how much "wilderness" costs us. The way we manage our wilderness areas is no more natural than the way we manage our other forests, it merely further restricts the use of those forests.

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