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As an example, in Okanogan-Wenatchee National forest the following rules are in place:

Fires are prohibited throughout the vast majority of the Enchantment Permit Area; no fires anywhere above 5,000 feet or within 1/2 mile of any lakes.

But... wouldn't it be better to burn a fire at high elevations, presuming you've brought in your own wood or fuel? Trees become very sparse at these elevations and temperatures are relatively low. I could see the park placing a limit on not starting fires near trees, or a ban on collecting wood, or even a ban on burning things that might look like wood. But why not allow burning, say, wood pellets or briquettes which would obviously be brought in from outside the park?

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  • Related (but IMO not duplicate): outdoors.stackexchange.com/questions/20042/… Jul 1 at 20:35
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    Why are you treating this site as a blog to complain about the policies of the US Department of the Interior? You've asked like 8 questions this week that are all the same theme.
    – miken32
    Jul 2 at 3:05
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    What you're doing there is called "rationalization". You want to know the reason, so that you can argue the reason, so you can let your busy mind dream up a reason the rule shouldn’t apply to you. Stop even going down that road. It is sheer vanity to presume that you can be smarter than the current (typically public) rule-making process, which involves extensive debate and peer review, inclusive of actual experts in the field. As a novice camper it is absurd to argue with experts. Jul 5 at 19:59
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    Well I am sure someone who actually wanted to find all the documentation of the rulemaking process, would have no trouble doing so. It's not like it's a secret. I'm just not sure you want to find it... "a highly competent government making soundly researched rules in everyone's best interest" is not the story you're looking for... Jul 5 at 23:19
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    No I did not say that. You asked how to see copies of the rulemaking docs, and I told you what I thought was the most expedient way, if I was investing my own time in the task that's what I'd do. The fact that you are spring-loaded to misinterpret, only reinforces my earlier suspicions about your intents. You yourself asserted some of it might be enacted decades ago. Why would you expect that to be online? Jul 6 at 0:18
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Question: if you were a park ranger, how could you tell if a campfire was fuelled by non-local wood? Would you have to go investigate each and every fire and argue with the people who made it? Keeping in mind that, as having to hike wood up to high elevations is somewhat strenuous, there would be an incentive to "live off the land" and cheat the system: at night, there is little risk of a ranger coming by to investigate.

While some people may really really miss campfires, having lots of people do campfires is bad/risky in many situations, such as drought or high elevations. Seems easier to ban campfires entirely rather than to have to take the next step and limit campers whether or not they intended to use a campfire.

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But... wouldn't it be better to burn a fire at high elevations, presuming you've brought in your own wood or fuel? Trees become very sparse at these elevations and temperatures are relatively low.

The sparseness of trees is exactly the reason not to allow fires. In your example, Okanogan-Wenatchee NF is pretty far north (east of Seattle), so the tree line is probably pretty low in elevation. If you saw that trees were sparse, then it was because you were approaching the tree line. The tree line is by definition the boundary of the forest ecosystem, where trees can just barely survive. A tree at this elevation can be 300 years old but only 10 feet tall -- this is called krummholtzing, and it occurs because the growth rate is so low.

If camp fires are allowed, then people will scavenge the landscape near their campsite for wood. In an ecosystem where trees have this much difficulty surviving, we don't want that. People will of course always claim that the wood they used was already dead. Actually, the dead wood is important organic debris that forms part of the basis for building soil from dead rock.

But why not allow burning, say, wood pellets or briquettes which would obviously be brought in from outside the park?

These regulations are written with high-elevation backcountry areas in mind, not car-camping campsites. Backpackers aren't going to carry briquettes with them.

And even at a car-camping campsite, it's not a good thing if people bring wood from other areas to burn. This brings in harmful insects and other disease causing organisms that the trees in the area don't have natural resistance to, and it's why you'll see signs saying "Burn it where you buy it."

The original question seems predicated on the assumption that it's really important to have a campfire. It's not. Building campfires all the time is a habit from the middle of the 20th century. It's environmentally destructive. Just don't do it. You can enjoy yourself in lots of ways without a campfire.

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  • I’d argue that building “campfires” originated from the times of Prometheus, aka prehistoric days. Otherwise a good answer. Jul 2 at 1:53
  • @JonathanReez I don't think the idea of backpacking and campfires was popular with prehistoric man. They built fires for warmth, protection from predators and to cook, sure. But do we - modern humans - really need a fire for any of those things with our gas stoves, warm clothing and the fact we've pretty much hunted most of our natural predators to extinction?
    – Darren
    Jul 2 at 8:46
  • We also have RVs, apartments and houses now and not just caves. Do we really need to sleep outside in the first place? I see camping as a continuation of the legacy of being close to nature and that legacy included campfires for thousands of years. Sure, you can use propane to cook, AA batteries to get light and a GoreTex jacket to get warmth, but that’s not the point. We also like to play musical instruments around the campfire - you know, real ones, not fake ones on a laptop :) Jul 2 at 16:20
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In addition to other answers, I think one thing has been sorely missed. Alpine environments are fragile. So even if somehow you were able to ethically fuel a fire high up, it would be very hard to prevent burning the ground and very hard to properly dispose of the ash. Some areas are sensitive to certain fertilizers because the native soil doesn't have a lot of these nutrients it only ends up benefiting and encouraging invasive flora. So something like wood ash in certain areas can encourage the growth of invasive species that the soil normally wouldn't support well.

Another potential factor is wind, if you're below treeline still wind could play a major factor in turning a campfire into a full blown forest fire that spreads very fast. High altitude also makes it hard for fire crews to access, so a potential fire at high altitude could become a very big problem very quickly. While temperatures up high might be lower, end of summer high altitude is drier because of wind the vapor point of water is lower, and water runs downhill.

I think all factors added up, and knowing that people have trouble following the rules where it's easy to ethically have a campfire, it's just best to outright not allow it because it would require a substantial effort to have an ethically sound fire at high altitude.

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