COLUMN: From Here and Back Again

Jim Coufal

Arbor Day 2017: A Cautionary Tale

A small group gathered on Saturday, April 22, at Lakeland Park. It was a cold and windy day. They were there for an Arbor Day Tree Planting Ceremony, sponsored by Cazenovia Village’s Tree Commission. There was a proclamation and the names of donors of trees read, a singing, and we welcomed a stately European hornbeam to the park’s diversity.

The planting of a tree at such a ceremony, and the planting of trees by individuals around the country, are worthy things. Yet, as with many important things in life, after the moment, it is so easy to let its importance slip into the deep recesses of our mind. We can’t afford to let this happen because trees and forests are taking many hits and need concern and action every day of the year.

As the climate warms and droughts are more common, wildfire season comes earlier and stays longer. Drought-weakened trees are killed by bark beetles and other insects and diseases, and the fuel load increases. The hot, dry conditions lead to more intense wildfires. Wildfires of this nature are most common in the west. Comparing the time 1970 through 1986 with that of 1986 through 2003, western wildfires occurred nearly four times more often and burned six times more land area in the later time frame than in the earlier.

In 1985, federal wildfire suppression costs were $240 million; in 2016, such costs were just short of $2 billion. In 1980, 1.7 million acres burned; in 2015, 10.1 million acres burned. To say nothing about the values of the land we lost, those are our dollars.

Interagency Fire Center data for 2016 show humans caused 61,552 fires that burned 2.5 million acres; while 10,280 lightning-caused fires burned 3.7 million acres. It’s not really true that “only you can prevent forest fires,” and we do cause many of them.

The southeast is also a region of many forest fires, but the midland and northeast are not immune. The Gatlinburg fire of 2016 indicates a number of things. It was a small fire by western standards, about 17,000-plus acres. But it killed 14, injured another 175 and destroyed 2,460 structures. It was set by a teen arsonist.

Its great destruction was due to the urban-wild land interface it crossed, burning directly into Gatlinburg, also destroying resorts like Dollyland. Many historic great forest fires (most over 1 million acres burned) were in Michigan, Wisconsin, Maine and New York. Compared to those times, our urban-wild land interface has grown greatly, providing for more possibilities like Gatlinburg.

The above leaves out much of the story of the hits trees and forests are taking. We can’t wait until next Arbor Day to take action. If you love forests and trees, get involved now. There are groups like the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Audubon, Save our Wildlife and others.

Locally, sportsmen’s clubs, the New York Association of Forest landowners, Trout Unlimited, and more. If you are ready to actively protect our environment, look into the group Cazenovia Call to Action, and similar groups in Chittenango and Canastota. Yes, these are “resistance” groups,” and they are political but not partisan.

In any case, protecting our environment is beyond politics, it is an ethical and moral issue. Working with friends and neighbors for a worthy – even life-sustaining – cause, is very rewarding.

Jim Coufal of Cazenovia is a part-time philosopher and full-time observer of global trends. He can be reached at

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