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Green Fire Meets Red Fire; Environmental History Meets the No-Analogue Anthropocene
Dr. Stephen J. Pyne*

Single lightning bolt strikes the ground in Deschutes National Forest OR Chris Jensen

William Shakespeare famously claimed the past was prologue. Henry Ford replied it was bunk. To the more ardent Anthropocenarians the present has so ruptured from previous times that the past can offer no meaningful guidance. This sentiment can conflate with notions from natural science and philosophy, both of which claim to stand outside human culture and history. Taken together they suggest that we face a no-analogue future for which our only recourse is to reason from first principles and transcendent concepts.

I disagree. While ecology might have some general laws, it is a historical science, and while nature preservation might bid to rise above its social setting, it is a historical moment, an idea whose time and place can come and maybe go. The Anthropocene is a construct that defines itself against what came before. The past has a way of reasserting itself. So even when the past has been char-broiled to ash or slow-cooked to oblivion in greenhouse gases it returns because, in truth, it never truly goes away. Or to bookend Shakespeare with William Faulkner, the past isn’t over, it’s not even past. There is good cause to view the uneasy detente between nature preservation and the Anthropocene historically.

 Tribal members watch the Encebado Fire on Taos Pueblo land in New Mexico Ignacio Peralta As a useful index, consider that we are the keystone species for Earth’s fire. We hold a species monopoly; it’s what we do that no other creature can. Our stewardship of flame makes a unique metric of our ecological agency and of how we have sought to preserve nature. Or to place that observationmore concretely, consider one of the hallowed sites of American environmentalism, the high rimrock on the Apache National Forest where Aldo Leopold shot a she-wolf, watched the “fierce green fire” in her eyes die, and then pondered what it might mean to think like a mountain. In 2011 a megafire boiled out of the Bear Wallow Wilderness and overran that scene, along with 538,000 acres generally, to become the largest forest fire in Arizona history. In that fierce red fire American preservationist thinking met the Anthropocene. 

For a fire historian the idea of the Anthropocene is both easy and awkward to accept.

The easy part is that fire has been used to define the era, which begins when humanity shifted from burning surface biomass to burning fossil fuels. That “shifted” is the awkward part because hominins have been tinkering with fire since Homo erectus. Our pact with fire is our original Faustian bargain. We’ve always burned and so have affected the landscapes around us, and since we have gone everywhere, that pretty much means the landed fraction of Earth (save Antarctica). And in adopting fire we cooked food, and precooked landscapes, in ways that have altered our genome.

Why might this time be different? One reason is scale — the range and burn rate of human-brokered combustion. With industrial fire we’ve extended our reach, if not our grasp, to the atmosphere and oceans, and across deep time.We’re burning landscapes from the geological past and releasing their effluents to the geologic future. Even Antarctic ice is affected. Domestication by fire, and by other less homely means, has so evolved that not only are species being lost but select genomes may be engineered into new expressions, other genomes may be invented, and there are yearnings, by some, to resurrect formerly extinct species. A destabilization of the planet’s genomes may match that of its geographies. The magnitude of this biotic alchemy across the planet may signify a qualitative phase change.

It is not just that a hypothetical “balance of nature” has vanished, but the sense of a natural order that can exist outside of humanity. Our burn rate is stirring natural and anthropogenic combustion into a common cauldron. There may be no autonomous referent against which to measure ourselves; the primary agent for destabilizing Earth is destabilizing itself as well. But the wobbling gets worse. It may apply to the story we tell as well, or our ability to understand and describe these changes.We are both actor and critic. We have met the Other, and it is Us. Our story may turn on itself like a Möbius strip. 
 Burn out operation conducted by UT-ASF-E431 and Cedar City Fuels Crew on the North side of the Kolob Fire near Zion National Park Dirk Huber  Firefighters manage a prescribed fire on the Black Hills National Forest Terry Tompkins
For a historian of the American environment the narrative of nature protection hinges on the presence of a public domain.

Their existence derives from two paradoxes. One is that industrial societies— those most ravenous of natural resources—are also the ones prone to create nature preserves on a significant scale. The other is that a relatively unbridled capitalist society, in the full flush of the Gilded Age, set aside roughly a third of its national estate to shield against the ravages of its own economy. Barring a global pandemic neither event is likely to repeat.

In effect, finding it too difficult to extract public goods out of private lands, the US shifted its environmental commitment to the public domain. Like a shaky banking system that gathers up its debts into a bad bank to free up the good banks to function, so the country created good lands to absorb the duties it was unable to do on bad ones. There are some powerful stories of public action against toxins like DDT, contaminated rivers and shorelines, and befouled air, but the narrative of American environmental exceptionalism hinges on its preserved wildlands. It’s the public lands that require environmental impact statements, that absorb the duties of the Endangered Species Act, that house legal wilderness, and that hold the great epics. Pollutants are a task of national housekeeping, but the wild is romantic, and by being uninhabited in any serious way, it is where grand schemes for restoration, rewilding, or other projects advancing non-anthropocentric goals can be imagined.

Their history begins when they were isolated from the national estate. A couple of wondrous national parks were first, but the bulk of the lands were national forests.Wildlife refuges and national monuments added variety. Not until the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 was the public domain closed to further private acquisition; at the same time there was some transfer from private to public holdings through purchase and abandonment. The heroic age was about halting the divestment of the public domain and establishing agencies to oversee the reserves. Similarly, the prevailing fire policy was to exclude flame as far as possible and so spare the reserved lands from the abusive burning common outside them.

By the 1960s this era was closing. The coming controversies were over expanding that land base by purchase through the Land and Water Conservation Fund and, especially, over internally segregating the public domain for different purposes. Here was the basis for the great political battles over dams in the national parks, the application of the Wilderness Act (1964), and the use of the Endangered Species Act (1973) to create preserves indirectly. Meanwhile, The Nature Conservancy began its major acquisitions, putting technically private lands to public purpose and in many cases acting as a broker for an ultimate transfer to public status.
 Smoke management at its finest JN Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge FL Paul Ryan  Sheep evacuated from the Seedhouse area on the Hinman Fire Steamboat Springs CO Kari Greer
This sorting out has been an informing narrative for contemporary environmentalism. Every federal agency either received a charter for the first time (like the Bureau of Land Management) or had its charter renewed; even the Forest Service went through a fast march of legislative mandates. The defining quarrels occurred when the private economy tried to penetrate the reserved domain in the form of logging, mining, grazing, and mass-development recreation, and more broadly those quarrels sparked as public lands were redefined from generic multiple use to specific purposes. Outside the public lands there was little effort to accommodate nature protection apart from a handful of states.

Fire policy obligingly shifted from a singular strategy to one that adjusted practice to each category of land use. Agencies sought to restore natural fire to wilderness, shield developed areas from any flame, and reinstate tamed fire elsewhere through prescribed burning. A taxonomy of free-burning fires emerged according to the category of lands burned and the source of ignition, natural or human. Fires were wild, prescribed, management, planned or unplanned, prescribed natural, wildland fire use, or resource benefit — a managerial menagerie with each label carrying its own obligatory protocol. Interagency consortia replaced a once-hegemonic Forest Service.

Now that era seems to be expiring. The population of the country doubled between 1950 and 2000; sprawl has carpet-bombed the countryside with houses, all interbreeding with whatever natural hazards are present; ecological diversity is coming to mean the varieties of suburbs and exurbs and the fragmentation they have wrought. Sprawl, not commodity production, threatens the integrity of the reserves’ borders. But the primary controversies hinge on the internal administration of the public domain, particularly the trend toward ecosystem management.

The public lands appear overrun by an ecological insurgency. They are, by most accounts, a shambles from poor practices in the past, unhealthy biotas, invasive species, beetle and budworm swarms stripping conifer forests on the scale of the Laurentide icesheet, fast-morphing climate, and fires. The founding models— set the lands aside from the ravages of footloose capital and folk migrations—is no longer sufficient. Nor is its replacement: segregate the lands by their relative pristineness. It does little good to set lands apart for special protection if they rot away from the inside.Wildness will survive, wilderness might not.

Now the country is inflecting into another phase. The future will continue to depend on the public domain,much as the country’s infrastructure relies on national networks and federal funding. But the goals of nature protection must lie beyond expanding the federal lands and arranging them by degrees of purity. The future of the protected landbase lies with making sprawl more ecofriendly, with efforts by the states to create protected sites, and with private landowners, among which The Nature Conservancy can claim a niche both unique and large.

Classic preservation is segueing into restoration. Instead of sprawl projecting itself into the wild, smarter landscaping could carry a sense of a natural world into human communities. The future of management on those sites will rely on using national resources as a fulcrum to fashion collaborations and conservation easements, and to leverage lots of small changes into landscape-scale or regional projects. The future will probably look like the Disney Wilderness managed by TNC, the wholesale Everglades restoration program, the Four Forests Restoration Initiative in Arizona, and the New Jersey Pinelands Commission.
 Scars from a previous wildfire in the Bob Marshall Wilderness of MT still remain, while the fire dependent community rebuilds itself, 2008 Terra Fondriest  Eight years after the 1996 Hockderffer Fire on the Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff AZ the forest slowly recovers Bob Blasi
All depend on active administration. That doesn’t mean phalanxes of chain saws and feller bunchers, or the ecological equivalent of broadcast antibiotics that kill the good along with the bad. It means more targeted, better informed interventions. The alternative is that wilderness and parklands may simply be overrun by the Pandora’s box of global change. The old preservationist ideal that nature preserves should remain as sacred groves, untouched so far as possible, is the formula of a faith-based ecology. It can satisfy spiritual yearnings. But symbols need not be big, and preserves may no longer be able to serve as ecological anchor points. Paradoxically, that task may fall to their nominal buffer zones.

A pragmatic protectionism suggests that some ecological engineering is called for to ensure biological goods and services. In the 19th century the state had to halt the wreckage by placing some lands outside the reach of global capital; in the 21st it will have to intervene within those reserved lands to prevent the reach of the Anthropocene. This is a more complicated task. The choices before us are not aligned along a spectrum between the two poles of prometheanism and primitivism but arrayed like a constellation imagined out of the infinite lights of the night sky.

So, once again, fire policy is morphing. The carefully parsed categories have become meaningless when megafires can gallop across landscapes a hundred times the size of the minimum wilderness and burst beyond the borders of the reserves into Colorado Springs and Bastrop County. The effort to substitute prescribed fire for wild fire has worked in the southeast, where a cultural tradition of controlled burning on working landscapes endured, but it has faltered in the West, where the working landscape has shriveled. Instead, agencies are taking an “appropriate strategic response” to every fire. They are scrapping the distinction between natural and human causation. They treat wildland fires as big-box events in which crews back off to defensible barriers and burn out, while offering point protection to assets like houses.

 Rafters make their way through the burning corridor of the Raines Fire on the Salmon River August 3 2007 Vicki Saab The emerging model is a hybrid of government and civil society, much as agencies hybridize natural and anthropogenic fire. The interagency theme has expanded into an inter-governmental one in which all jurisdictions, both public and private, must coordinate under a “national cohesive strategy.” NGOs like the Coalition of Prescribed Fire Councils have arisen to promote fire’s restoration on private lands. TNC now prescribe-burns as much each year as the National Park Service. The critical environs will likely involve both public and private lands; their guiding principle, a new version of the working landscape, one dedicated to ecological benefits. The outcome depends on not just what is done but how and at what scale. As Paracelsus reminded us during the Renaissance, toxicity resides in the dosage, not the substance.

What has changed are not the physical principles of fire behavior or transcendent concepts of naturalness but historical circumstances. The need to reconcile notions into practice means people making choices in a contingent world about which they have incomplete knowledge. Ideas can no more flourish in untrammeled preserves than can fires. This sounds a lot like pragmatism. 

For a historian of human affairs the problem is not that the past offers no analogues but that it holds too many. The hope that the past might serve as a reference baseline or a repository of lessons and techniques is naïve. What history offers is less technical assistance than moral guidance. The core of the Anthropocene is still the human hand guided by mind and heart, and its moral challenge remains, as Faulkner once observed, “the human heart in conflict with itself.”

The fact is, technology can enable but not inform, and science can inform but not choose. Some choices we know have little redeeming social or ecological value, and for a few we already know enough to act on. Some past choices made with the best science of the day have proved wrong, and while science can self-correct over time, the damages done may not. So it is with ideas that suit one era but are maladapted to another. Stick a torch into forest duff today and you are not likely to recreate a presettlement burn but a blowup.

A reading of history can serve the future by sketching the historic ranges of moral variability, as it were. It can illuminate how to cope with uncertainty and ambiguity; by demonstrating how to act— which the future requires— with some degree of prudence and urgency; and by shunning the false dichotomy that either would leave land, air, and sea untouched in the hopes that a Panglossian best of all possible worlds will self-emerge or would demand interventions on the same scale as those by which we’ve unhinged the planet.History’s enduring lessons testify less to techniques than to such virtues as humility, resilience, endurance, courage, tolerance, and the value of pluralism.

Or to return to our fire analogue, we will be caught between two fires, one of industrial combustion that underwrites the Anthropocene and one of free-burning flame that epitomizes untrammeled nature.How they express themselves are not simply telling analogues but trying flames. We must find a way to pass between green fire and red without turning everything black.

Steve Pyne is a Regents’ Professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University.

This essay will appear in the forthcoming book After Preservation: Saving American Nature in the Age of Humans, eds. Ben A. Minteer and Stephen J. Pyne, published by University of Chicago Press. (return to article)
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