The Yellowstone Effect

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Mark Spitznagel draws an interesting parallel between forest management and economic management.

English: A fire in Yellowstone, Wyoming, Unite...

We learned that putting out small fires can lead to huge fires.

Suppressing fire, creating the illusion of fire protection, leads to the wrong kind of [forest] growth, which then invites greater destruction. About 100 years ago, the U.S. Forest Service took a zero-tolerance approach to forest fires, stamping them out at the first blaze. Fast forward to 1988 when a massive wildfire at Yellowstone National Park wiped out more than 30 times the acreage of any previously recorded fire.

What obviously occurred was that the most fire-susceptible plants had been given repeated reprieves (bailouts, in a sense), and they naturally accumulated, along with the old, deadwood of the forests. This made for a highly flammable fuel load because when fires are suppressed the density of foliage is raised, particularly the most fire-prone foliage. The way this foliage connects the grid of the forest, as it were, has come to be known as the “Yellowstone Effect.”

A far better way to prevent massively destructive fires is by letting the fires burn. Human intervention in nature’s cycles by suppressing fires destroys the system’s natural homeostatic forces.

Strangely parallel to the Yellowstone catastrophe was the start of the federal government’s other fire-suppression policy with the 1984 Continental Illinois “too big to fail” bank bailout. This was followed by Alan Greenspan’s pronouncement immediately after the 1987 stock market crash that the Federal Reserve stood by with “readiness to serve as a source of liquidity to support the economy and financial system,” which heralded the birth of the “Greenspan put.” The Fed would no longer tolerate fires of any size.

I remember looking up in the night sky and seeing the haze from the smoke of that big Yellowstone fire.