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In most national parks in the United States, campfires are prohibited above certain elevations (9,600 ft for Yosemite,10,000 ft for Ansel Adams with exceptions).

This is a good thing because after a certain height the trees don't grow fast enough for campfires to be sustainable.

Do note that this applies to campfires in the backcountry, not established campsites which have their own rules about wood gathering.

How exactly is the maximum elevation for campfires determined?

  • I'm quite confused (but I did not downvote). I'm used to a minimum elevation for campfires, because below the tree line the risk of forest fires is much higher; in Norway camp fires are only allowed above the tree line, and in high alpine terrain, fires carry essentially no risk. But in either case only dead wood should be used anyway, and solid fuel must be carried in, so I don't quite understand the rationale for a maximum. Personally, I think any campfire maket it hard to leave no trace. – gerrit Jul 31 '18 at 16:08
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    @gerrit I think the idea is that you would be gathering local wood for the fire, and close to treeline wood grows to slowly for that to be sustainable. – Charlie Brumbaugh Jul 31 '18 at 16:16
  • Part of your hypothesis is faulty, for the most part firewood collection inside of US national parks is limited to down wood. But you can bring in firewood with some restrictions (varies by park) example 1 & example 2 the rate of growth should not impact the campfire sustainablity – James Jenkins Jul 31 '18 at 17:01
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    @JamesJenkins See the update, its backcountry fires not in campgrounds – Charlie Brumbaugh Jul 31 '18 at 17:05
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    @JamesJenkins Its always limited to down wood, but even that requires trees to grow and if they are used in campfires, they won't be around to rot back into the soil. – Charlie Brumbaugh Jul 31 '18 at 17:10
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This answer is from personal experience and personal observation in Yosemite and the other parks of the Sierra. (I wish I had time to research this answer properly, but I don't right now.)

The altitude above which fires are prohibited is what I call continuous timber line, which is probably not an official or scientific term. It is the altitude at which woods give way to scattered small islands of trees in a sea of granite. This transition is quite abrupt. May Lake in Yosemite, for example, is surrounded by woods, but a few hundred feet above May Lake there are only small scattered islands of smallish trees.

There are expanses of granite with few trees well below 9,600 feet in places in the Sierra, but these are islands of granite in a sea of trees.

Only yahoos would cut branches off living trees or (shudder) cut living trees down. Park regulations call for collecting only downed wood, of which there is plenty below timber line. Two good follow-up questions might be whether timberline is moving up as the climate warms and whether the Park Service is investigating prohibiting campfires other than in official campgrounds because of the increasing danger of forest fires.

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I have never run into this regulation, but then I use the national/provincial forests and not the parks. But if I speculate:

  • Subalpine areas have very low biological productivity. 3 foot high trees can be a century old. Impact of wood collecting would be extreme. If this were the reason, then you would find that the elevations tend to be upper treeline +- some distance. E.g. if treeline is at the 6000 foot level on the south face, and 4500 on the north (typical values for Alberta mountains) then setting it at 4000 feet keeps the fires out of alpine country.

  • Any sort of camping at high elevation may be discouraged. The type of people who want a campfire tend to be non-minimalist campers.

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