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Forests on Fire
Nearly a century of federal land mismanagement.
Looking out my office window at a brilliant, clear Montana sky, my memories of last summers thick smoky haze from uncontrolled wildfires have faded. But the billowing smoke that cloaked the mountains and the gray ash that fell like an early snow is likely to return to Bozeman and other western towns in summers to come.
Naturally, being an election year, the spin masters turned the
summer fires into an opportunity to win political points by laying
the blame on the Clinton administration. Yet these catastrophic
fires that devoured more than six million acres took far more
than eight years to kindle. Nearly a century of federal land managementor
mismanagementcombined with a severe drought were the true culprits.
Ironically, the U.S. Forest Service was created to provide the
best possible management for the nations forests and that meant
management based on science. Tragically, the agency has failed
to fulfill this mission. Despite the fact that it was widely known
even in the 1920s that many forest types are fire-dependent, the
agency suppressed fire across the landscape. Today, many of our
forests are 10 times denser than they were 100 years ago. The
recent trend toward reducing timber harvest, de-industrializing
the forests, and setting more lands aside has only exacerbated
forest density and fire dangers. And it is here that the Clintonites
can be justly held responsible.
By its own accounting, the Forest Service now has 40 million acres
at high risk of wildfire, six million acres of dead and dying
trees due to insects and disease, and another 18 million acres
where periodic fire should be a normal part of the process that
are in dire need of treatment.
Though cool autumn weather eventually snuffed out the wildfires
of 2000, the damage had been done. Wildlife was destroyed and
driven off the land, fish populations suffocated in muddy torrents,
vegetation was scorched off the earth, and biodiversity went up
in smoke. Residents of the West lost homes, businesses, recreational
opportunities, and the irreplaceable scenic value of their land.
And taxpayers paid over $1 billion in firefighting costs.
Like a bad dream that you cant shake, the aftermath of the fires
can be as bad as the fires themselves and longer lasting. Bare,
burned soils can erode in seasonal rains. Sediments can clog streams
and muddy reservoirs, destroying fish populations and damaging
drinking water for large populations. In 1996, the 12,000-acre
Buffalo Creek wildfire destroyed the watershed that supplies most
of Denvers drinking water. So far, the city has spent $3 million
on restoration efforts and expects to spend another $8 million.
Even today, five years later, floods continue to be a problem
throughout the burn area.
What our national forests need now is a hands-on approach to management,
not a laid-back let nature take its course approach. This is
where the past administration failed and where the Bush administration
must take a stand.
Active forest management has irrefutably saved portions of other
national forests from similar devastating wildfires. In Washingtons
Wenatchee National Forest, managers removed many of the smaller
trees and much of the deadfall from the ground. When the Tyree
fire swept through the area in 1994, this section of forest lacked
the heavy fuels to feed the fire and thus reduced the intensity
of the burn.
Today, a green strip of living trees in the treated area is surrounded
by the dead and blackened remains of the wildfire.
Other forests tell a similar tale. The 1994 Star Gulch fire in
Idahos Boise National Forest burned 30,000 acres, but spared
a site previously thinned with mechanical harvest and prescribed
burn. Last June, a fire that swept through Arizonas Kaibab National
Forest spared a pilot site that had been thinned to about 10 percent
of its former density. Still, such treatments are adamantly fought
by environmental groups that successfully sued to reduce the size
of similar pilot sites near Flagstaff, Ariz., from thousands of
treated acres to just a few hundred.
Now, the pendulum has swung from commodity interests to environmental
ones. The names have changed from multiple use (read timber harvest)
to ecosystem management, but the politics have not.
To save what is left of the valuable natural resources on our
national forests, the Forest Service must be reformed and the
political management subdued. To begin with, forest managers must
be given clearly defined goals; the political strings that tie
agency budgets to Congress must be cut, allowing managers to respond
to the value of the resources at hand; and incentives to manage
for ecological health must be provided.
Shy of such reform there is no reason to believe that our national forests will be managed any better under ecosystem management than they have for the past century.
Holly Lippke Fretwell is a research associate specializing in public lands at the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman, Mont., and is author of Public Lands II, Forests: Do We Get What We Pay For? PERC can be reached at 502 South 19th Avenue, Suite 211, Bozeman, MT 59718, 406-587-9591, fax: 406-586-7555, <www.perc.org>.
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