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By Andi Bourne

Should the Forest Service Let It Burn?


December 21, 2017

Andi Bourne, Pathfinder

Senior Brady Stone addresses the opposing side during the negative side's rebuttal.

SEELEY LAKE – Seeley-Swan High School seniors took to the stage Dec. 13 to debate the resolution "The Forest Service should manage fires by letting them burn." While both sides presented convincing arguments with supporting evidence and facts, the team opposing the resolution won the debate. Everyone in the audience had the opportunity to comment and choose which side they felt won.

This was the fourth annual debate in Dr. Kathleen Pecora's senior English class. The students chose the resolution because they felt it was an issue they wanted to know more about and it had impacted them directly.

Students were assigned which side they argued with six students on each side. Kwande Anderson, owner of Double Ott Trucking and Timber Management in the Swan Valley, Seeley Lake Ranger District Fire Management Officer Phil Shelmerdine and Federal Officer Tyler Robinson spoke to the class as expert witnesses on the topic. Students also used other experts in the community and researched to validate their points.

Points for the affirmative side included the high cost of fighting fires when having to put them out; the historical use of fires by the Native Americans and returning that burn frequency to the forest; the role of fire in removing the dead and diseased trees and thinning the understory to remove material that loggers won't remove; adding nutrients to the soil and benefiting the ecosystem and the mosaic fire creates on the landscape. They emphasized that they were not for allowing megafires, fires over 100,000 acres, to burn but rather to use smaller fires as a tool and are allowed to burn when it is appropriate.

In her closing argument Elizabeth Done said, "What it comes down to in the end, why we don't want to use fire, is because fire is scary. Fires can hurt us but ignorance can hurt us as well. With the responsibility to manage our lands, it is ignorant to not know all the tools at our disposal. It is ignorant to not know the fact that each of these tools has a specific purpose, time and place. If you are going to strike the use of controlled fire out of our management capabilities, because it is scary, do you really deserve to live here? That fear will limit you from fulfilling your responsibilities of this community and as a member of this ecosystem."

The negative side focused on the benefits of logging both economically and to the environment; the negative impacts fires have on the forest and communities due to lost resources, economic loss to businesses and emotional stress to those affected; climate change that has made the area hotter and drier making it harder to contain fires.

Logan Maughan closed with, "We must strive to manage our forests better before the first sparks fly. We must fight the fires before it grows out of control and threatens the wildlife, property, livelihood and most importantly lives."

Both sides agreed that using fire as a tool under controlled situations was acceptable. The negative side emphasized that logging should be the most preferred management tool while the affirmative side believes that while logging can be used, allowing small fires to burn is more beneficial to the environment.

The judges decided that the negative team provided the most persuasive argument and articulated their points more clearly. Pecora was not surprised by the outcome because a majority of the students opposed the resolution.

Those that were assigned to the negative side thought they had an easier time with the debate. They were more passionate about it because it more closely aligned with their belief systems and they could easily find people willing to talk about why fires should be put out.

Logan Maughan who was assigned to the negative side said that he spent his time researching his opponents' argument which "merged his view."

Ibby Lorentz, on the proponent's side, said that while she initially didn't agree that fires should be allowed to burn she learned a lot of things about fire that she didn't know. "It makes you a bit more open minded about the topic in general."

Done found it beneficial having to argue something that she didn't agree with because she wants to pursue a law career and she knows she will have to "put my feelings aside and just get the job done."

The group consensus, regardless of what side they argued, was the local community should have more say in how the Forest Service chooses to manage fire and the public lands entrusted to them. The students said according to their research that currently the community, and often the local ranger districts, have little input into the decisions that are made. Most of the students agreed that was the most frustrating part and something that needs to change.

"I hope these debates continue for many years to come," said Pecora. "It was a learning experience for all of us. We really appreciate the time Tyler Robinson, Phil Shelmerdine, and Kvande Anderson spent talking about their experiences, policy, and their thoughts on the Rice Ridge Fire."


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