Like past Burning Man temples, The Temple in 2017 will primarily honor and foster healing in all who participate and visit. Yet there is another important message in this year’s temple, the healing of the disruptive balance in our surrounding ecosystems. Throughout Nevada and California there are dramatic changes occurring in our forests. Pines, oaks, and many other kinds of trees are dying in unprecedented numbers from diseases and pests such as Sudden Oak Death and pine bark beetles. Last year scientists reported more than 100 million dead trees in California, and just last month scientists reported over 800 million dead trees in Colorado. Indeed, all of the western US states are experiencing elevated levels of forest decline.
Many point to climate change as the cause of this decline. However, a deeper understanding of the forest history and ecology suggests that human activities other than climate change are more likely the primary reasons why our forests are suffering.
To understand the problem we must journey back many hundreds, even thousands, of years to a time when the land and forests were managed by indigenous peoples. In California we have clear evidence that native tribes burned and otherwise tended to land in ways that promoted the healthy growth of oaks, pines, and other food-producing trees. By applying fire to the land wisely, they were able to create woodland ecosystems of vigorous oaks and pines that not only provided them with acorn and pine nuts, but also provided good habitat for wildlife. Reports of the early explorers in California describe woodland landscapes teaming with mammals and birds, and rivers full of fish.
Possessing a deep understanding of the ecology, the tribes in California tended the wild by burn the oak and pine woodlands frequently, which prevented heavy fuel buildup and promoted rejuvenating fires that burned the ground layer but not the tree canopies. They even timed the fires to reduce pests such as acorn worms and pine bark beetles, understanding that fire is nature’s way of controlling diseases and insect pests. As a result, they were able to sustain oaks, pines, and redwoods to reach tremendous sizes and ages. In fact, the largest trees in the world, the giant sequoias, have evidence of being tended by native people.
With the arrival of western settlers all of this changed. Fires were viewed by the newcomers as destructive forces, so fire prevention measures were implemented. Today’s forests are severely overgrown with mature trees, young trees, and understory brush. These overgrown, fire-free conditions stress the mature trees and allow pests and diseases to invade. Since native oaks and pines need periodic (ground) fires to maintain their health, the exclusion of fire is a double-edged sword. An overgrown forest both stresses the existing trees, and it creates fuel for more extreme (canopy) fires that damage or kill the mature trees.
Fortunately, there are a number of ways to alleviate this problem. One is to start tending the forests with prescribed fire. Another is to use fire mimicry methods to rejuvenate the forests. Either method requires that the dead and dying trees first be removed.
This is one of the tasks of The Temple of 2017, to utilize the dead pines that have succumb to pine bark beetle to build the temple. The process of securing the wood involves the removal and milling of dead pines that otherwise could and, likely, would fuel a catastrophic wildfire. On a personal note, I live in Big Sur and know what it is like to lose a home and see a community devastated by wildfire and resulting landslides. My involvement in this year’s temple is a way of helping other communities avoid a similar fate.
In summary, the ecology of this year’s temple began a long time ago, when the pine trees used in this structure may have been destined for greatness. Instead they fell into decline because of mismanagement, or rather, lack of stewardship. By removing and providing value to these doomed pines, we provide both inspiration and financial incentive for land managers to begin reducing the danger of catastrophic wildfires and improving the future health of our forests. As the temple burns this year I will be reminded that this is one less forest that will succumb to a destructive fire, and that any fires that do burn in the areas of the felled pines will be low-intensity, rejuvenating fires. Hopefully, the message of this temple will inspire others to take more responsibility in caring for our life-sustaining forests. For me, this temple will be for the trees!