By Tess O’Sullivan
Last summer, a careless action sparked a fire that burned 65,000 acres, roughly 100 square miles, of the Pioneer-Craters area in a very short time.
The land that burned is a place I know and love dearly, a place I’ve been lucky enough to get to know over almost 20 years now as a conservation biologist. It’s a place where wildlife roam freely across the sage- and grass-covered hillsides, where animals find homes in the aspen groves, Douglas fir stands, wet meadows, willow- and cottonwood-lined streams, springs, hayfields and pastures.
This land has been healthy and productive and provides for a diverse mix of wild and domestic animals. Local ranchers depend on the health of these lands, as do the sage grouse, pronghorn and sandhill cranes that make this their home, even if as seasonal residents akin to human “snowbirds.” Among the many natural wonders, I am awestruck by the pronghorn, which retain such fidelity to their summer home in the Pioneers that they travel each spring and fall across one of the longest known migration routes in the Lower 48.
It was disturbing to see what was destroyed by the fire and to think about what may have been lost that we can’t even see. Many local residents, ranchers, farmers and conservation groups have invested so much time, energy and passion into conserving the Pioneers-Craters area.
In the wake of such destruction, there’s been an outstanding effort to restore these lands. Greg Moore’s recent Express article described how private, federal and state groups have pooled resources to help the land heal. In the short term, these efforts will help the land and the landowners and ranchers adapt to a new reality.
In the long term, we as a community need to recognize and discuss the changing climate that led to a fire of this size and intensity. All the landowners I spoke with after the Sharps Fire said they had never experienced or heard of such a large fire affecting their ranch country. And they had never heard of a fire starting in July. Previously, there have been some small lightning-caused fires, more likely to occur in August or September. Those fires were easier to put out.
The climate has changed, and consequently the soil and the plant communities have changed—conditions are drier and hotter, and highly flammable invasive plants have taken root. As a result, we are experiencing larger and more damaging fires. Restoration is important, and so is addressing climate change.
What will that take? Solutions at all levels—from the individual choices we make to the clean energy policies we support at the city, county, state and national levels. We can start by talking about and acknowledging the ways in which climate change is impacting Idaho. Rep. Mike Simpson and Gov. Brad Little have both eloquently and courageously commented on the reality of climate change and the need for action. They have paved the way for Idahoans to come together on the issue. The time to act is now and the way forward is together. The Idaho we know, love and depend on is at stake.
Tess O’Sullivan is conservation manager for the Idaho chapter of The Nature Conservancy.