Fire Management: An Increasingly Destructive Practice

By Ron Baker

“Let us give nature a chance. she knows her business better than we do”
– Michel de Montaigne

Author’s Note:
Mohonk Preserve is a 6,500 acre privately-owned nature preserve in southeastern New York State. It is divided into two parcels, one between the villages of New Paltz and High Falls; and the other located in the Shawangunk Mountains west of New Paltz.

In Autumn 2005, the managers of the preserve initiated the destructive practice of “controlled burning” on preserve lands. Two grass fires were conducted in mid-April, and a more severe burn was planned for this Autumn. The managers’ reasons, as is true on other natural lands where fire management is employed, are based on faulty and misunderstood principles of ecology.

Fire management at Mohonk Preserve presents a microcosm of the overall problem of prescribed fires (“controlled burning”), and it illustrates the biological/ecological destructiveness of this practice.
Some of the worst crimes are not legally considered crimes. One tragic example is the use of fire on natural lands. After many years of closely studying Nature, I can explain why so-called fire management is unscientific, non-ecological, and biologically destructive.

Local fire proponents say that fire has played a major role in shaping the forest ecology of Shawangunk Ridge. During the past 60 years, however, fires there were infrequent and mostly confined to small areas. Lightning-set fires are rare in southeastern New York; most are due to human carelessness or deliberate arson. Thus, the majority of Shawangunk fires were not natural.

One of the goals of fire managers at Mohonk Preserve is to keep fields open to maintain plant and animal species. But preserve them how and for what purpose? And which species? Nothing is static in Nature.

Nature is in continuous evolutionary progression toward a climax state, but this is seldom reached anymore because of human interference. When open areas in wooded terrain are cleared for building or farming some species of plants and animals disappear while new ones slowly move in. Is the use of fire in fields some kind of solution or is it part of the problem of failing to live in harmony with Nature?

Mohonk Preserve has used a tractor with a rake-like attachment that cuts plants and mutilates saplings, creating an eyesore. Then burning creates an even greater eyesore! Aesthetic beauty is usually an indicator of a healthy natural ecosystem and vice-versa. The narrow objectives of some people are often at odds with what is best for nature from a total ecological perspective.

One example:
LEHIGH ACRES, Florida (AP) — Two boys were charged Sunday with setting weekend brush fires that have destroyed or damaged more than two dozen homes and burned more than 1,500 acres in southwest Florida, authorities said.

The boys, ages 10 and 12, were arrested and charged as juveniles with intentional and reckless burning of land, a third-degree felony, Lee County sheriff’s Lt. Robert Forrest said. Authorities were seeking a third youth.

A Lack Of Empathy With Nature

Ron Baker and Anne Muller trotted off to the Albany Pine Bush to take a look at the aftermath of the prescribed burn areas, and collect soil samples.

Following behind Ron at the Albany Pine Bush –”Boy are you slow,” Ron’s thinking.

What kind of tree is that? A good tree or a bad tree?

Let me guess: a good leaf on the right and bad on the left?

Our shock upon seeing this! Must have been a bad tree!

Fire proponents claim that controlled burning recycles nutrients. But there is evidence that even ground fires destroy micro-organisms in the upper layer of soil that are essential for healthy plant growth. These may include diminished quantities of important nitrogen-fixing and ammonia-oxidizing bacteria. Even a single controlled fire can cause a substantial decline in the vital upper layer of humus, and general depletion of soil quality. Depleted soil is less productive, so plant life deteriorates. And since plant-eating animals are only as healthy as the quality of their food supply, fires adversely affect both plant and animal life.

Since much burning is done in the Spring, many toads, salamanders, mice, moles, chipmunks, snakes, and insects are killed. The smoke drives away nesting birds. Those animals that return find their territory radically altered, berry-producing plants dead and charred ground surface. Anne Muller, the publisher of The Binocular, found a half-dead turtle with its shell burned as a result of a deliberately-set field fire. Many fire proponents consider wildlife casualties a justifiable collateral damage.

As for the many kinds of oak that fire proponents at Mohonk say they want to preserve, they fail to explain how controlled burning will aid oak regeneration by opening the forest canopy without killing some of the trees they want to save.

Finally, there is the argument that a buildup of flammable materials on the forest floor could cause a serious wildfire, endangering homes and property. This is possibly a mere canard intended to gain public support for controlled burning. Naturally there are some people who are careless with fire. There are also mentally disturbed incendiaries. But why should professed ecologists compete with these people? Fire suppression is the reason we have local fire departments.

Fire management at Mohonk Preserve is a mistaken experiment. Some of the preserve’s administrators privately admit that they are uncertain about potential long-term effects of controlled burns. In any case, both short-term and long-term effects are detrimental to the normal processes of Nature.

The notion that most animals can run or fly away from forest fires is inaccurate. Animals who live in nests above ground or low in trees are especially vulnerable to fires. Even healthy, large mammals who might normally run clear have been trapped by shifting winds and fire direction, and confused and suffocated by smoke. Bison, bear, moose, and elk were found among the dead animals in fires at Yellowstone National Park.

The Real Reasons For Fire Management

One reason that fire management is increasingly advocated is that fire is a comparatively cheap and easy method of “managing” forests and wildlife, and thus it’s adopted by some federal and state forest and wildlife officials who don’t want to spend the time, money, and effort on alternative procedures. This principle applies at Mohonk Preserve, and it is supported by several “conservation” groups, including the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, Open Space Institute, and The Nature Conservancy.

The second reason for the advocacy of fire management goes to the heart of our cultural value system. Many Eastern religions advocate the sanctity of life. They contend that the earth is a living organism and our treatment or mistreatment of it has positive and negative effects. The traditional Western worldview holds that Nature exists for human benefit. Therefore, people have the right to manipulate it in whatever ways they deem expedient.

The conflict between these two philosophies is between those who value the lives of individual plants and animals, and those who view Nature as a material entity. Unfortunately, the utilitarian concept of Nature is inherent in forestry and wildlife science programs at colleges, and reflects the practices of modern science and technology.

On the basis of available evidence and my own observations of the effects of fire on woodlands, I am certain that controlled burning is destructive. If the managers of Mohonk Preserve wish to honor their motto, “Saving the Land for Life,” they should reconsider their policy of controlled burns. Because of fire management at Mohonk Preserve, I felt compelled not to renew my preserve membership in 2006.


Fire management has become increasingly reckless in recent years. This is especially true on many public lands, theoretically held in trust for all Americans. The U.S. Forest Service has set crown fires over wide areas of coniferous forests to kill infestations of insects. This is unnecessary, as most infestations are cyclical, running their course after several years and causing limited damage. “Stand replacing” fires kill all the trees in an area so as to repopulate it with other species. Napalm has even been used on forests in Colorado by the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service to clear migration corridors for trophy-hunted mountain sheep.

In Texas, 2600 acres were bulldozed and set afire with chemicals and gasoline, purportedly to control the pine beetle. Forestry personnel now admit that the pine beetle had already completed its natural life cycle two years earlier and was no longer a threat!

One indication that the deliberate use of fire in many natural areas is being officially promoted is the appearance in Catskill State Park of a new billboard showing Smokey the Bear telling us “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires.” The message is clear: Wildfires are bad, but controlled burning is acceptable.

Controlled burns do not create conditions conducive to natural evolution of plant and animal life. They destroy ecosystems to conform to human goals that are limited and sometimes exploitative. While we can’t protect forests from natural disruptions, we can protect them from the destructive effects of fire. We should allow forests to evolve as Nature intended. Those who love Nature must actively oppose the dangerous, destructive practice of fire management on natural lands.

This article was extensively researched for accuracy. To read it in its entirety, with references, please go to the C.A.S.H. Courier website at

Ron Baker is author of The American Hunt Myth. He homesteaded in the Adirondacks for 27 years and was a frequent contributor to the Backwoods Journal, a publication for homesteaders and naturalists.


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