Mohonk Preserve Members Should Say “No” To Controlled Burns by Ron Baker

By Ron Baker

      At a meeting at the Mohonk Preserve, it was stated that there was some concern about wildfires if there should be an extremely dry summer, and that these fires could be exacerbated by some of the blowdowns caused by wind and ice. The touted cure was “controlled burning.”

      The truth is that “controlled burning”, like wildfires, can be very destructive.  Even low-level ground fires can kill insects, toads, salamanders, mice and voles who are in burrows close to the surface.  Low-growing bushes that can provide food for many species of birds and mammals are often killed.  Since much burning is done in the spring, the smoke-producing fire can drive away nesting birds.  Those that return will find a dramatically altered environment and a diminished food supply.  Moreover, a charred ground surface is far from an ideal habitat for any animal.  Even burning fields in late autumn (as is presently being considered at the Preserve) destroys the seeds of frost-killed tall grasses and late blooming flowers.  These would otherwise be eaten by some species of wintering birds.

      Regular burning results in the depletion of soil quality by destroying microorganisms essential for healthy plant growth.  The result is inferior, low-grade plant life, as is found in Albany’s (NY) Pine Bush.  Since plant eating animals are only as healthy as their food supply, this principle applies all the way up the food chain. 

      Moreover, it isn’t uncommon for “controlled burns” to become uncontrollable.  There have been many news stores about these.

An Excerpt from the Reno News in 2000:

“The National Park Service’s controlled burn near Los Alamos N.M., is the most deadly example… So far it has scoured some 50,000 acres, historic structures at the old atomic-bomb site, hundreds of homes and tribal land. At last count, 405 families had been burned out. Businesses suffered too, being cut off from customers.”

       Several years ago a “prescribed burn” in the Pine Bush raged out of control after a sudden strong wind sprang up.  A specially assembled fire-fighting crew and a DEC helicopter were needed to extinguish the blaze.

       Since “fire management” is an environmentally destructive practice, one would be justified in asking how it became fairly widespread.  As you probably know, it was first proposed some 70 years ago by Aldo Leopold, who was much less of an ecologist than the historical revisionists have led many people to believe.  Today, many of Leopold’s contentions are anachronisms.  Nevertheless, they are still quite widely accepted by forest and wildlife managers.

      The use of fire to manage wildlands didn’t come into general use until the mid-1970s.  Prior to that time, a policy of complete fire suppression was usually pursued.  The period between 1973 and 1978 was a time of severe economic recession. In New York State unemployment bottomed out at 11.3 per cent, the highest state unemployment rate since The Great Depression.  The federal and state governments sought ways to balance budgets by saving money. Forest and park rangers and fire wardens were laid off.  The belt-tightening increased during the Reagan presidency.

      Since fire-fighting funds were cut, it became common policy to allow fires to burn themselves out on wildlands where homes were not threatened.  Likewise, some forestlands were burned, ostensibly to prevent serious fires later.  This was like throwing the baby out with the bath water, but it was good dollar diplomacy.

Forest and park officials now began to claim with increasing certitude that was the use of fire was an ecologically sound practice.  (Naturally, when people engage in an activity, for whatever reason, they will usually try to justify it.)

      The myth that fire is environmentally beneficial became incorporated into ecology textbooks used in colleges and universities, and is advocated by many professors whose programs are funded in part by groups such as the American Forestry Association.  The primary problem with these programs is that no emphasis is placed upon an empathy with life and a reverence for Nature.  But this is consistent with most forest and wildlife management practices, which are designed to produce sometimes-illusionary short-term benefits, usually at the cost of long-term hazards for the rest of Nature.  That is a problem inherent in most commercial enterprises.  There are responsible ways to manage natural lands, but they are benevolent and constructive, not malevolent and destructive.

      The most basic problem is the prevailing cultural view that human beings are superior to the rest of Nature.  Therefore, according to this philosophy, people have an inherent right to use, abuse, or manipulate it in any way that suits their interests.  Otherwise good people can often be influenced by bad ideas, especially if these are presented in a seemingly logical fashion and if there would appear to be some benefits that result.

      It’s true that some ecosystems, such as pine barrens<, have arrived at their present state as a result of periodic fires.  The question is why these fires occurred.  In the vast majority of cases they were a result of carelessness, or were caused by deliberate fire setting by mentally disturbed people.  This was true for many years in central New Jersey and in the Pine Bush.  Simply because fires have burned over an area on a regular basis doesn’t mean that fire is beneficial to the natural world!If these lands were to remain undisturbed by human acts and destructive natural forces they would evolve toward a climax state.  Some forms of life would slowly disappear but many others would move in to take their place.  Many pine barrens have become so scarred by fires that they are essentially sick ecosystems that support limited numbers of plans and animals.

      Today, some forest and wildlife managers seem to be in competition with careless campers, irresponsible hunters, and deliberate match throwers.“Fire management” is a principle that, in many parts of the United States, has become increasingly irresponsible over the years.In parts of the West and Southwest napalm and chemicals are used to start major fires, even crown fires, to destroy insect infestations or for other land or wildlife management purposes. 

      The use of fire to mange woodlands and open spaces is short-sighted, unscientific, morally questionable, and can be very destructive to plant and animal life.It is my opinion, based on much experience elsewhere, that if fire is allowed to be used in Mohonk Preserve, it will be employed with increasing frequency and in increasingly irresponsible ways as time goes on.Invariably, Nature will be immeasurably diminished.

       The problem at Mohonk Preserve, and on natural lands elsewhere in this region, is not droughts and blowdowns.The problem is with people who are careless with fire, since lightning-set fires are extremely rare in this part of the country.The time, money, and effort should be directed toward public education which might help to foster true ecological awareness.

      I would like to voice my strong opposition to the seriously misguided plan for burning on Mohonk Preserve.


Ron Baker is a naturalist who homesteaded in the Adirondacks for 27 years.The only way to his handbuilthomestead was to cross a beaver pond and hike for 40 minutes uphill through a rugged forest.Mr. Baker was editor of the Backwoods Journal, a publication through which homesteaders shared the knowledge they’d accumulated over the years living in the woods.It was read by homesteaders, and aspiring homesteaders or those who could only homestead vicariously.  In 1985, Mr. Baker published The American Hunting Myth.  The book was a well-documented condemnation of wildlife management for hunting.  After moving to the Hudson Valley a few years ago, Mr. Baker joined the Mohonk Preserve in order to hike and explore the beautiful preserve area.