The Cliven Bundy Narrative – Intoxicating, uncompromising, quasi-religious

You may have heard about the standoff between the federal government and a rancher named Bundy in Nevada. He has refused to pay his grazing fees and his cattle are endangering the desert tortoise. We posted a short quote from Mr. Bundy along with an editorial cartoon about the subject on our Facebook page (you can see the cartoon and the quote at the bottom of this post). But, wow!

We usually receive about 1,000 post views, but this time? It’s currently at 348,000 and climbing. The good part of this is that the Chaparral Institute is getting a lot of attention. But there’s also a scary part.

There’s an intoxicating, uncompromising, quasi-religious narrative out there that some very vocal folks have so surrounded themselves with that they have created an alternative state of reality. This narrative is promoted by several financially successful “news” media outlets that have rejected the most basic principles of news journalism. For example, fact checking. The Sean Hannity Show is a case in point. Hannity even created news himself by initiating rumors that federal agents were going to conduct a secret raid on the Bundy Ranch. Gone is one of the most fundamental requirements for rational thought, the art of unbiased questioning.

Fortunately there’s a lot of rational people helping to promote the actual truth. But it remains an ongoing battle, one that will unfortunately have to play out for some time to come.

Pulling from the hundreds of comments we’ve received this past week on our Facebook page, here are some of the most common tenets of the Bundy narrative:

1. Anti-federal government and government in general.
“I believe this is a sovereign state of Nevada. I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing.” -Cliven Bundy
There is also the notion that the federal government cannot own land and that everything from national parks to national forests are illegal.
“The fact is, the Bundys as well as many Americans who do the research know that the government has no jurisdiction on this common law land and only by fiat and though environmental conservationist ideals media attempts to sway Americans to believe they do.” -Joel

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The Myth of “Park-like” Forests in the Past

A research paper released yesterday finally did it for us.

“The most profound implication of this study is that the need for forest ‘restoration’ designed to reduce variation in fire behavior may be much less extensive than implied by many current forest management plans or promoted by recent legislation.”

Over the past ten years I have become increasing skeptical of the notion that large, high-severity fires in Western forests are “unnatural” and are completely the result of fuel build-up due to past fire suppression. A comment made last summer by a fire scientist during the Rim Fire in Yosemite that historically in the western Sierra the maximum high-intensity fire patch size was 40 acres with a few acres being the norm was, for me, completely illogical. The press loved it though.

Having read hundreds of research papers, hiked in the Sierra Nevada all my life, having some experience with fire as a USFS seasonal firefighter, watched huge fires move in drought-stressed, low humidity, windy conditions, and observed billions of dollars being spent to “restore” forests by clearing out habitat (i.e. “fuel”), I’ve concluded the conventional wisdom that “forests-are-supposed-to-be-park-like-with-only-surface-fires-clearing-out-the-understory-every-5-10 years,” really needs to go.

Yesterday, a remarkable paper was released that examined “the historical and current mixed-severity fire regimes in ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forests of western North America.” The scientists examined a huge landscape-data set (from published literature and information on stand ages from the Forest Inventory and Analysis program) about forests across the entire West.

Their conclusion? The traditional reference conditions of low-severity fire regimes are inaccurate for most forests in western North America. Most forests appear to have been characterized by mixed-severity fire that included ecologically significant amounts of weather-driven, high severity fire.

Some of the findings of the paper particularly struck us.

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Words Matter: It’s not fuel

Words matter.

We’ve had quite a discussion on our Facebook page this past week over the word “fuel.” It is related to the misuse of the word “forest” for the four national forests in southern California. Habitat is not fuel. Chaparral is not forest.

When a word is used that has the impact of masking necessary details or truth, it needs to be called out for what it is. Yes, shrubs provide fuel for fires to burn. Yes, the four large federal land holdings in California are part of the national forest system. But both words fail miserably in communicating what they are supposedly describing.

Worse, these words minimize and marginalize in the same way ethnic slurs demean entire groups of people. By continually describing the burning chaparral habitat as fuel during the fire in Glendora this past week, NBC was dismissing a valuable ecosystem. It is unlikely it would use the word “fuel” to describe a burning neighborhood or fire victims who ended up in the burn ward.

Why does it matter? Why do we disagree with those who are asking us to “get over it?”

One only has to observe what has happened to word choices as numerous minorities in our country have demanded equality. Words can have powerful impacts and can shape our attitudes and actions.

Calling a person by her real name is powerful. She will feel welcomed as her sense of belonging grows. Others will feel it too. As her name is heard in conversations, people will remember her identity as an individual and will more likely recognize her in a crowd. Over time, she might even be paid as much as a he for the same job.

It’s time to use the right words and ditch the ones that are dis-empowering or mask the truth.

Speaking of names, it is time to start calling the four national “forests” in Southern California by their right name (see photo below).

Sign Los Padres Sign II copy