July 23, 2002
he nation is eagerly throwing thousands of firefighters and more than $10 million a day against forest fires burning over nearly 4 million acres of the West.
If only it made that kind of effort at fire prevention. For years, the country has stalled around and bickered over the forest thinning and other work needed to prevent these kinds of devastating fires. And there's a chance again this summer that firefighting costs will consume money set aside for fire prevention. If that happens, Montana Gov. Judy Martz warns, the nation will "continue to rob Peter to pay Paul while perpetuating the mistakes of the last century."
Never mind Smokey Bear. It's now clear that only the U.S. Forest Service and other land management agencies, freed to use prescribed fire and other methods, well funded by Congress, and well supported by the public, can prevent catastrophic wildfires. As the West burns, there's a search for blame in Western communities and in the halls of Congress. Pointing fingers isn't nearly as hard work as fighting fires or thinning forests, or even coming up with the money to pay for them.
In recent years, Congress has built a financial fire line around the Forest Service, starving it for resources. Now Congress and the White House are forcing the agency to take $700 million from other programs to pay for firefighting cost overruns this year. Meanwhile, red tape, bureaucratic ineptitude and appeals from environmentalists have further fenced in the Forest Service. The agency has managed to launch some fire prevention projects -- treating about 135,000 acres in Oregon last fiscal year -- but its effort so far pales in comparison to the job that must be done.
Take Oregon's Malheur National Forest, for example. No place in Oregon was at a greater risk of fires this summer, according to the Forest Service's own analysis, and yet no major fire prevention projects were under way there this spring. Now a complex of fires is burning through thousands of acres of Malheur forest. Environmentalists, meanwhile, are hotly contesting claims that they have tied up fire prevention projects with appeals. They cite a flawed General Accounting Office study that reported only 1 percent of fire projects were appealed. In fact, the Forest Service reports that nearly half of appealable fire prevention projects in the Northwest were challenged in fiscal years 2001 and 2002.
Environmental appeals clearly have played a role in tying up the Forest Service bureaucracy and contributing to a process paralysis. Given the
devastation now occurring on public lands, it's fair to ask: How are forests, fish and wildlife helped by blocking thinning projects, leaving fire danger sky-high? Rural communities must shoulder blame, too. Rural and suburban residents oppose prescribed fires and complain about smoke intruding into mountain views. Three years ago, Colorado legislators passed a law requiring fire managers to comply with the Clean Air Act, making it tougher to treat Colorado's forests. That doesn't seem wise now.
The nation needs to remove such roadblocks. It has now been nearly a decade since it became obvious that fire policies must change, that the Smokey Bear's snuff-every-fire policy had created a huge danger in Western forests. Today, these forests have up to 10 times as many trees as they did when fires were allowed to burn a century ago.
Wildfires are burning across 212,000 acres of Oregon alone. Lightning started every one of these major fires, but in another sense every one was humancaused. None would be this big, costly or damaging if the nation had done what's necessary to restore the health of its forests.