The Fire This Time
Wall Street Journal Online
June 21, 2002
In December 1995, a storm hit the Six Rivers National Forest in northern California, tossing dead trees across 35,000 acres and creating dangerous fire conditions. For three years local U.S. Forest Service officials labored to clean it up, but they were blocked by environmental groups and federal policy. In 1999 the time bomb blew: A fire roared over the untreated land and 90,000 more acres.
Bear this anecdote in mind as you watch the 135,000-acre Hayman fire now roasting close to Denver. And bear it in mind the rest of this summer, in what could be the biggest marshmallow-toasting season in half a century. Because despite the Sierra Club spin, catastrophic fires like the Hayman are not inevitable, or good. They stem from bad forest management -- which found a happy home in the Clinton Administration.
In a briefing to Congress last week, U.S. Forest chief Dale Bosworth finally sorted the forest from the tree-huggers. He said that if proper forest-management had been implemented 10 years ago, and if the agency weren't in the grip of "analysis paralysis" from environmental regulation and lawsuits, the Hayman fire wouldn't be raging like an inferno.
Mr. Bosworth also presented Congress with a sobering report on our national forests. Of the 192 million acres the Forest Service administers, 73 million are at risk from severe fire. Tens of millions of acres are dying from insects and diseases. Thousands of miles of roads, critical to fighting fires, are unusable. Those facts back up a General Accounting Office report, which estimates that one in three forest acres is dead or dying. So much for the green mantra of "healthy ecosystems."
How did one of America's great resources come to such a pass? Look no further than the greens who trouped into power with the last Administration. Senior officials adopted an untested philosophy known as "ecosystem management," a bourgeois bohemian plan to return forests to their "natural" state. The Clintonites cut back timber harvesting by 80% and used laws and lawsuits to put swathes of land off-limits to commercial use.
We now see the results. Millions of acres are choked with dead wood, infected trees and underbrush. Many areas have more than 400 tons of dry fuel per acre -- 10 times the manageable level. This is tinder that turns small fires into infernos, outrunning fire control and killing every fuzzy endangered animal in sight. In 2000 alone fires destroyed 8.4 million acres, the worst fire year since the 1950s. Some 800 structures were destroyed -- many as a fire swept across Los Alamos, New Mexico -- and control and recovery costs neared $3 billion. The Forest Service's entire budget is $4.9 billion.
That number, too, is important. Before the Clinton Administration limited timber sales, U.S. forests helped pay for their own upkeep. Selective logging cleaned up grounds and paid for staff, forestry stations, cleanup and roads. Today, with green groups blocking timber sales at every turn, the GAO says taxpayers will have to spend $12 billion to cart off dead wood.
It's no accident that two of the main Clinton culprits -- former director of Fish & Wildlife Jamie Rappaport Clark and former Forest Service boss Michael Dombeck -- have both landed at the National Wildlife Federation, which broadcasts across its Internet homepage, "Fires Are Good."
Fixing all of this won't be easy. After 30 years of environmental regulation, the Forest Service now spends 40% of its time in "planning and assessment." Even the smallest project takes years. Mr. Bosworth has identified the problems, but fixing them will require White House leadership and Congressional cooperation.
One solution would be to follow the lead of private timber companies, whose forests don't tend to suffer such catastrophic fires. Their trees are an investment; they can't afford to let them burn. Americans should feel the same way about theirs.