Dehradun: As forest fires have increased with rising temperatures, especially in the chirpine forests, the Uttarakhand forest department has said it will file a petition in the Supreme Court for scientific management of forests, which, in this case, refers to pruning and chopping of trees.

The forest department blames chirpine trees--evergreen trees, the scientific name of which is Pinus Roxburghii--for forest fires, and locals blame the trees for depleting water sources. But scientists and environmental experts disagree, instead blaming the heat and the natural resin in trees for the forest fires and overuse of forest resources and depleting oak forests for the water problems in the area.

The chirpine trees have, in fact, helped in retaining the green cover of the Himalayas, said Manoj Chandran, an Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer, and the chief conservator of the Uttarakhand forests.

Though the Himalayas are in the northern hemisphere, the southern slopes of the mountain range are prone to heating by the harsh sun rays. A majority of the south-facing florae in the Himalayan region struggle to deal with the heat but the centuries-old chirpine has gradually adapted itself to survive in the warm temperature, he explained.

"Many myths and much misinformation has been spread about the chirpines, which is why whenever there is a forest fire, everyone blames these trees," said Vishal Singh, director of research at the Center for Ecology Development and Research. "This might have an impact on the manner in which decisions are taken at a political level."

Increasing forest fires

Nearly 45% (24,464 sq km) of Uttarakhand's 53,483 sq km area is forested. Most of the forests in the state comprise of chirpine, sal and oak trees, among others. Sal, tropical deciduous forests, are usually found 300-1,000 metres above sea level, or the lower foothills of the Himlayas. Chirpine forests are found at 900-1,800 metres above sea level, while oak forests are at 1,500-2,300 metres above sea level. Many chirpine forests are near human habitations, and form 28% of the total forest area of the state.

Instances of forest fires have gone up in the state in the past few years.

Forest fires in Uttarakhand increased over 65%, from 12,695 fires between November 2018-June 2019 to 21,487 fires between November 2020-June 2021. About 6% of all forest fires in India were in Uttarakhand between November 2020 and June 2021.

As per the Forest Survey of India, most forest fires occur between November and June, and most are because of man-made reasons. In Uttarakhand, most of the forest fires are reported between February 15 and June 15.

For centuries, people in this region have been adopting controlled fires as a tool for forest management. Traditionally, in order to have fresh green grass, they tend to burn dry bushes. However, sometimes, because of high temperature, this fire ends up turning into an uncontrolled forest fire.

In Uttarakhand, these instances often occur in Chirpine forest near populated areas.

"In our region, the chirpine forests are considered to be a curse. They have completely ruined the biodiversity," said Puran Rawal, president of the Van Panchayat Sarpanch Sangathan in Bageshwar district.

He added: "We have written letters to a former chief minister, the Uttarakhand Forest Department, and the district administration, requesting them to reduce the number of chirpine trees in populated areas. We have also requested them to plant more broad-leaved trees. We care for those who live in the forests, and we are aware of the damage done by the chirpines."

Are chirpine forests prone to fires

Despite chirpine trees being more fire-prone, a forest fire in a chirpine forest is less damaging than one in an oak forest.

Pine leaves catch fire rapidly but this fire does not last very long and spreads further. Photo credit: Varsha Singh

"Both chirpine and oak forests are prone to fire. The oak forests are usually found on the northern slopes where the heat is relatively less and there is more moisture. Hence the chances of these trees catching fire become lower," said Chandran of the IFS, who is also a researcher. He blames the inflammable material present in chirpine leaves, known as resin, for making them fire prone.

But these trees are also more fire-resistant. "In the chirpine forests, the fire starts at a particular spot and lasts only for a few seconds. However, because of the presence of oil in the leaves, it spreads fast. Thankfully, the fire stays only on the surface and does not seep into the ground," explained Chandran. "The insects and small animals staying beneath the ground remain safe. Besides, the chirpine forests bloom as soon as it starts raining."

On the other hand, oak forests struggle to deal with fire. Because of the presence of moisture, the flames are not seen on the surface, but the fire constantly sizzles beneath the ground. It affects the biodiversity of the area and these forests take longer to bloom, Chandran said.

Locals say chirpines intrude into oak forests

Chirpine trees are native to the Himalayas, and are also found in Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Darjeeling, Arunachal Pradesh and neighbouring countries.

A faction of scientists believes that because of chirpine forests, the Himalayan region is facing desertification, said J.S. Rawat, head professor of the Geology department at Kumaon University. He said that wide-leafed trees, like the oak, store up to 40% of the rainwater they receive, while trees with pointy leaves, like the pine, can only carry 8%-16% of the received rainfall.

However, S.P. Singh, senior scientist and former vice-president of Garhwal University, does not agree. He explains: "As the temperature goes up, the chirpine trees gradually close their stomata in order to store water. On days when it's unbearably hot, they use this water. On the contrary, the oak trees keep their stomata open, and they are not able to store water. For this reason, these trees survive only under favourable conditions, whereas the chirpines survive even in dry weather conditions. Had that not been the case, the region would have faced deforestation long back."

"In summers, trees shed their leaves to save water. These leaves, in turn, become a safety cover for the soil and help it retain the moisture even in the harsh climate," Singh added. "It's wrong to blame the chirpines. No ecologist will agree with this."

The chirpines also often get blamed for intruding into oak forests, on which some people depend on for fodder.

"We are to be blamed for this," said Chandran. "Because of consistent pruning of trees for fodder, the canopy of oak trees opens up. This results in drying up of the surface. As a result of this, oak trees are not able to grow and the chirpines take over. There are fewer oak forests now. If we don't let the chirpines grow, it will lead to deforestation."

Rising demand for forest management

The primary objective of forest management is to strike a balance between the use of forest resources to fulfil commercial needs and protecting the environment.

In 1981, because of rampant chopping of trees, the Uttar Pradesh government had imposed a 10-year ban on cutting of trees that were more than 1,000 metres high. The ban was then extended by 10 more years. On December 12, 1996, while pronouncing the judgement in the writ petition filed against illegal timber extraction from the Nilgiri forests and for the bioreserve's preservation, the Supreme Court had again imposed a ban on cutting of trees in UP (Uttarakhand was then a part of UP) and Himachal Pradesh. The ban still continues.

Every summer, as soon as the forest fire season begins, locals demand the ban be revoked.

Smoke rising from forest fire in Pauri, Uttarakhand. Photo credit: Varsha Singh

Take the case of S.P. Nautiyal, who lives in Semandidhar village in Tehri district. He has written letters to the state chief minister, the Prime Minister's Office, and the Uttarakhand forest department requesting them to cut chirpine trees.

"Because of the increased number of chirpine trees, the water sources in our villages are depleting. Chirpines are responsible for both forest fires and farm fires. Many shade-providing and fruit-bearing trees also get damaged in these fires," said Nautiyal. He said he has requested the government to cut the chirpines and cultivate fruit-bearing trees instead.

"We had sent a request to the Environment and Forest Ministry regarding forest management of trees taller than 1,000 metres. But, in 2020, citing the Supreme Court's Godavarman verdict, the Centre dismissed the plea," said B.K. Gangte, the additional principal chief conservator of forests, vigilance and the legal cell. "The forest department is now planning to approach the Supreme Court."

Talking about the ban, Singh of Garhwal University, said: "If the ban gets revoked, no one knows how many trees will be cut. This is why we are hesitating. However, if the chirpine forests are managed properly, it will be beneficial."

Chandran, in his capacity as an independent researcher, agreed, "Given the present environmental conditions, forget one tree, we should not be cutting one bush even."

But he also does not believe that better management of the chirpine forests will necessarily result in fewer forest fires. Often the reasons for the fires are man-made, and the fire becomes uncontrolled because of the weather, he said, adding that management of forests should not just be about pruning and cutting of trees.

A version of this article first appeared on IndiaSpend Hindi.

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