December 30, 2002 — 8:38 p.m. Winter has put its cold blanket on our Western forests, mercifully ending another difficult and destructive wildfire season. More than 6 million acres burned this year, including huge blazes in Colorado, Arizona and Oregon, along with those in California.Many of the burned areas sustained only light to moderate damage because of cooler flames that, in most cases, are actually beneficial to the ecological health of the land. But extensive stretches were ravaged by unnaturally hot blazes with catastrophic effects. These include charred "moonscapes" resulting from the Hayman Fire near Denver and the McNally Fire in the Sequoia National Forest. These disasters are not random acts of God that we are helpless to prevent. We can greatly reduce their risk of occurrence by using forest management tools such as thinning and prescribed fire. That we haven't been doing so reveals our lack of natural resource stewardship. The hottest wildfires devour entire watersheds, feasting on heavy accumulations of flammable vegetation and woody debris. Destroyed homes provide the best media footage, but resource professionals more clearly see the damage done to soils, water quality and critical wildlife habitat. Forest fires can burn so intensely that they actually reach down into the soil and devour its vital organic component. Denuded slopes are left with an almost kiln-fired finish, vulnerable to flash flooding and accelerated erosion. In the aftermath of a 12,000-acre wildfire in 1996, the Denver Water Board spent millions of dollars recovering from the effects of debris flows into a key municipal reservoir. In the year following the Buffalo Creek Fire, storm runoff carried as much sediment — 250,000 cubic yards — from the devastated watershed into the reservoir as had accumulated during the previous 14 years. Now, after last summer's 138,000 acre Hayman Fire, the looming impacts to Colorado's communities and water supplies are potentially much worse. It's even arguable that we are now incinerating more spotted owl habitat in the Sierra Nevada and Pacific Northwest than we are growing. This is despite years of strict timber harvest prohibitions intended to protect areas that provide forage and nesting sites for these and other threatened creatures. Fires that devour dense forest canopies kill more than the trees. Once destroyed — especially with severe damage to the soil — forest habitat can take decades, if not centuries, to fully recover. So why aren't we doing more to prevent catastrophic wildfire? The proven tools are there: forest thinning, selective logging and prescribed fire. Unfortunately, forest policy remains highly politicized, with more than its fair share of junk science, emotional appeals and litigation. Ironically, language from a venerable piece of conservation law might provide a way out of the current stalemate when it comes to forging a vision for the proper stewardship of our natural resources. In 1897, Congress passed the Forest Reserve Act, providing direction that "public forestlands" (now called national forests) must be managed so as to "improve and protect the forest . . . for the purpose of securing favorable conditions of water flows, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use and necessities of citizens of the United States." What is important to note is the act's primary emphasis on watershed protection. In recent decades we have been fighting about trees, but perhaps we need to think more about "securing favorable conditions of water flows" (i.e., watershed health) and the "continuous supply of timber" will take care of itself. We also need to look even further back, to the centuries of forest management experience at the hands of Native American peoples. Nineteenth-century environmentalist John Muir marveled at the parklike appearance of Sierra Nevada forests. Numerous accounts by early American pioneers describe Western forests as open and inviting — a very different picture from the dense fire-prone thickets that are commonplace today. It is now known that these pre-European conditions were not a random accident of undisturbed nature. Native peoples managed the North American landscape, cutting trees and using fire to perpetuate desirable forest conditions. There is no reason that we cannot equal or better this record of stewardship. Catastrophic wildfires and their undeniable impacts on vital watersheds are forcing us to rediscover our deep connection to — and responsibility for — the forest. That means waking up from a generation of environmental overkill and looking toward the future with a clean slate. "Saving" the forest only to burn it down should become a relic of the timber wars. William Wade Keye is past chairman of the Northern California Society of American Foresters. His commentary was first published in the San Francisco Chronicle.