Editorial - Perhaps an answer to a burning question

Dianne St. Jean

The role of publisher/editor of a newspaper presents a regular challenge – the age-old question - “What am I going to write about for my editorial this week?”

I still chuckle every time I recall something a co-worker in the industry once told me, that while working at another newspaper some years ago, their editor strolled through the office early one morning and offered to give twenty bucks to anyone who would write his editorial for him.

Sometimes it’s a real struggle to come up with an idea, other times it’s as obvious as the smoke in the air.

And that, of course, brings me to my topic.

Having to deal with the ongoing fires and smoky conditions raises the issue of trees and forests, as these are literally the fuel that feeds the fire, and few things spark controversy and argument in BC like the topic of what to do with all the trees.

When I moved to BC from Alberta, I noticed an attitude of deep reluctance to clear away any trees, even those that are old and dying, or already dead.

This in contrast to the Alberta mentality and habit of clearing trees – sometimes too many. I remember while growing up hearing about the results of too much clearing – strong gusty winds scooping away precious topsoil from land of farmers that did not leave a windbreak around their property.

The zeal to protect, or the fear of getting rid of too many trees, has resulted in far too much tinder that makes it easy for fires to spread. Attempts at “controlled burning” are also met with criticism, since these can also get out of hand.

But is just leaving dead and dry trees and underbrush the best alternative?

A conversation this last week brought back to my mind some things I had learned while studying Anthropology in university.

Years before colonialization, many native groups actually practiced controlled burning – successfully. They only did it when conditions were ideal, such as in very early spring or late winter when there was still some snow or the ground was still wet from thaw; or, in early winter when conditions were cool and damp. They would select sections each year, almost on a rotation basis, rather than attempting to do too much burning at once.

What this resulted in was forests that were not overly thick, and where shrubs and bushes, especially fruit bearing ones essential to survival, had the opportunity to flourish and not be drowned out by the larger trees. New evergreen trees constantly replaced older, dying ones; in fact, some require fire in order to germinate. Populations of potentially destructive insects like tree beetles or ticks were kept in check. This resulted in a more diverse forest, and one beneficial to both human and animal.

I remember seeing photos of landscapes taken from early days of photography of forests in some of those regions, in comparison to the landscape now – overrun forests where the trees themselves are desperate to compete for sufficient growing space and sunlight.

What changed? When the White Man (excuse the politically incorrect term) came on to native ground, they actually outlawed these burning practices, largely because of railroad construction activity and other ideas for the land. Some First Nations people were actually jailed for trying to continue the practice.

So to those who think that protecting nature means always letting it run amuck – let’s take a lesson from those peoples who survived on this land for centuries before the rest of us.

Does protecting nature always mean leaving it to itself? I think perhaps there are times when humankind must intervene for the benefit of nature.

Instead of fiercely defending our position because we assume it’s the right one, maybe we should consider that not all things in life are on one side of the spectrum or the other. In fact, there may just be other solutions that we have forgotten about or are not seeing.

As the old saying goes – sometimes we don’t see the forest for the trees.