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Fueling the wildfires: California's deadly wildfires show that federal land management policies for the supposed protection of the environment are, predictably, having the opposite effect.

The federal eco-saviors ... have created ecological disasters of near-apocalyptic proportions. Tens of millions of acres of once-beautiful forestland have been transformed into charred moonscapes and dying, bug infested, overgrown tinderboxes set to explode into blazing infernos.

--William F. Jasper

"Endangered Property Rights"


October 25, 1999

As we write, the hills of Southern California are still smoldering. A recent headline in the Los Angeles Times read, "Some Evacuees Begin Returning to Homes." Having once lived in Los Angeles County, this writer is familiar with the hot, bone-dry Santa Ana winds that fanned the recent catastrophic wildfires. The philosophical thing to do, perhaps, would be to dismiss the widespread devastation as the inevitable result of nature reclaiming what man has interloped upon.

But it is not easy to dismiss the loss of 22 lives, more than 3,500 homes, and more than 750,000 acres of timber and brush. Our inquisitive human nature seeks explanations for tragedies, so we might satisfy ourselves that we (collectively) did everything humanly possible to prevent them and that we will find ways to prevent similar catastrophes in the future.

It is emotionally wrenching to discover that human intervention could have prevented a major tragedy entailing loss of life. Even worse is the realization that, in the case of the recent California wildfires, the evidence shows that human action contributed to the tragedy.

Specifically, federal policies for managing our national forests have created the conditions for more frequent and larger wildfires. And although those policies were supposedly intended to protect the environment, it was entirely predictable that they would have the opposite effect.

Even the GAO Says So

But don't just take THE NEW AMERICAN'S word for it. When Senior Editor William E Jasper warned four years ago that "'tens of millions of acres of once-beautiful forestland'" had already become "overgrown tinderboxes set to explode," he cited an April 1999 U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) study entitled Catastrophic Wildfire Threats. That study, Mr. Jasper noted, warned that "39 million acres on national forests in the interior West are at high risk of catastrophic wildfire" due to unnatural and excessive tree density, massive buildup of undergrowth, disease and insect infestation.

Since that 1999 GAO warning, many experts continued to sound alarms about the impending catastrophe--but to no avail. Their recommendations were ignored by government officials. One of the experts who repeatedly warned of the coming inferno is Dr. Thomas Bonnicksen, professor of forest science at Texas A&M University. Weeks before the outbreak of the California firestorm, Professor Bonnicksen expressed his grave concern at the mounting danger in California's mismanaged national forests. His August 24, 2003 written statement to the U.S. House Committee on Resources appears prophetic in view of the devastating fires that ravaged the San Bernardino Mountains area in October:
 I have been working in California's
 forests since the late 1960s. Never
 have I seen anything more dangerous
 than the overgrown, beetle-ravaged
 forests of the San Bernardino and San
 Jacinto Mountains. I am concerned
 for the safety of people living in communities
 surrounded by these forests.

The tragic human, forest, wildlife and watershed losses from the latest California fires not only were predictable, but were predicted, repeatedly, by Dr. Bonnicksen and a host of other forest experts. Yet the government officials responsible for the policies that produced the disaster have not been held accountable.

Nero Fiddles While Forest Burns

How did federal policies set the stage for massive wildfires? In nature, without any human intervention, periodic wildfires started by lightning strikes tend to be small and localized, burning away just enough underbrush to prevent a dangerous accumulation. The Forest Service's long-standing policy of putting out wildfires disrupted the historical pattern of frequent low-intensity fires, resulting in a dangerous accumulation of fuel.

Of course, the Forest Service could put out wildfires without allowing this dangerous accumulation to occur. Historically, the federal government allowed private lumber companies to harvest sufficient timber from federal lands to keep them thinned out and free from incendiary underbrush. But in more recent years, supposedly to protect the forests, the federal government has reduced the timber harvest to arbitrarily low levels and has compounded the problem by neglecting to remove dead, insect-ravaged trees. These supposedly environmentally friendly policies have resulted in the steady conversion of our national forests into tinderboxes full of underbrush and dead wood, awaiting the next spark and gust of dry wind to erupt.

The GAO report Catastrophic Wildfire Threats explained:
 The most extensive and serious problem
 related to the health of national
 forests in the interior West is the
 over-accumulation of vegetation,
 which has caused an increasing number
 of large, intense, uncontrollable,
 and catastrophically destructive wildfires....
 Past management practices,
 especially the Forest Service's
 decades-old policy of putting out
 wildfires on the national forests, disrupted
 the historical occurrence of
 frequent low-intensity fires, which
 had periodically removed flammable
 undergrowth without significantly
 damaging larger trees. Because this
 normal cycle of fire was disrupted,
 vegetation has accumulated, creating
 high levels of fuels for catastrophic
 wildfires and transforming much of
 the region into a tinderbox.

There are many other federal policies that are putting our forests at grave risk. They include:

* The banning of insecticides and fungicides has allowed disease and bark beetles to kill once-healthy trees, making them more susceptible to forest fires. As George Melloan of the Wall Street Journal observed in an August 15, 2000 column: "With use of detested insecticides and fungicides banned, disease and bark beetles killed stands of trees, making them powerful tinder for forest fires. Underbrush grew up, further adding to the tinder. A lightning strike could set all ablaze."

* Policies and bureaucratic red tape prevent the timely removal of blow-down timber and trees that are dead or dying from insects and disease. At a July 1999 hearing of the House Resources Subcommittee in John Day, Oregon, Dave Traylor, a woodsman, logger, hunter, fisherman and outdoorsman, provided powerful testimony concerning the outrageous polices killing the national forests. "The Forest Service has either been forced to operate or has chosen to operate on contradictions," he said. "When huge stands of timber blow down, the Forest Service refuses to sell it; then they turn around and complain that they lack the funds to operate as they should! They point at the blow-down timber as the cause of insect infestations and terrible forest fires, but they refuse to allow people who are willing to clean it up to do the job."

* The Clinton-era cutbacks in the fire preparedness budget of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) dangerously weakened the agency's firefighting capacity. The August 22, 2000 Washington Times reported that the Clinton administration had cut more than $100 million from the BLM's fire preparedness budget, while increasing the agency's land acquisition budget by $11 million. Funds that should have been expended for firefighting essentials, such as tanker trucks, shovels and training sessions for firefighters, were instead allocated for the ongoing Western land lock-up.

* As our national forests were degenerating into firetraps, the Interior Department was setting aside nearly a dozen new national monuments, acquiring millions of additional federal acres in the process. The simultaneous boost in the BLM's land-acquisition budget means that the beleaguered agency must protect more lands with diminished firefighting resources.

* The creation of roadless areas eliminates preexisting firebreaks and impedes getting fire trucks and other equipment to the fires. In the Wall Street Journal column cited above, George Melloan noted: "One principle of the [Wilderness Act] was that these lands should be left free of roads, which are a 'death sentence for the ecosystem,' in the secretary's words. Certain areas also came to be declared out of bounds for anything manmade, including fire trucks. In short, they were to remain 'wilderness.'"

* The irresponsible use of controlled burns by federal bureaucrats notorious for torching huge expanses of forestland is a prescription for more calamity. Used properly, controlled burning is a legitimate forestry management tool. But fedgov managers seem to be incapable of exercising common sense or heeding the warning of meteorologists when told the conditions are wrong for burning. For example, more than 25,000 residents of Los Alamos, New Mexico, were forced to flee a towering wall of flames that was ignited when National Park Service officials at Bandelier National Monument set a controlled burn in May 2000. That burn, which was conducted despite warnings of extreme danger by the U.S. Weather Service, rapidly grew to a raging wildfire, destroying 44,000 acres of forest, 260 homes, and hundreds of archaeological sites.

Change in Tune

Federal mismanagement of the forests has become so bad that even some former radical environmentalists have changed their views in recent years. Take Rex Wahl, the executive director of Forest Guardians, a radical environmentalist group in New Mexico that had unconditionally opposed logging.

In August 2000, after observing the destruction of nearly five million acres of land by an estimated 64,000 fires, Wahl announced a reversal of his organization's traditional position. "Wildfires are getting bigger, burning hotter, and the effects are more devastating," he told the Washington Post. "It's clear we'll have to take mechanical steps like thinning before we can use fire to restore these forests to a more natural regime."

Ironically, several years earlier Wahl's group had contributed to the conditions spawning the fires by becoming a plaintiff in a lawsuit that sought to shut down logging in New Mexico and several other states in order to protect the Mexican spotted owl. On August 24, 1995, U.S. District Court Judge Carl Muecke--ignoring restrictions on the Endangered Species Act that had just been enacted by Congress--granted an injunction "temporarily" closing down all timber harvesting in the Southwest's 11 national forests. Judge Muecke's ruling was severely criticized by then Arizona Governor File Symington and by Arizona legislator Mark Killian. Unfortunately, it took widespread devastation for one of the leading supporters of the ruling to admit the foolishness of it.

Following the extensive coverage of the recent devastating California fires, Congress moved to jump-start previously stalled legislation that would implement many of the provisions of the Bush administration's "Healthy Forests Initiative," which addresses some of the inescapable points we have discussed, such as the cause-and-effect relationship between excessive fuel build-up in forests and the worsening of forest fires.

Much of the Healthy Forest Initiative was incorporated into the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 (H.R. 1904), now in a conference committee where the differences between the House--and Senate-passed versions of the bill are being reconciled. According to the bill's title, H.R. 1904 is: "An act to improve the capacity of the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of the Interior to conduct hazardous fuels reduction projects on National Forest System lands and Bureau of Land Management lands aimed at protecting communities, watersheds, and certain other at-risk lands from catastrophic wildfire, to enhance efforts to protect watersheds and address threats to forest and rangeland health, including catastrophic wildfire, across the landscape, and for other purposes."

The reduction of hazardous fuels in our national forests is undisputedly a worthwhile goal. Obviously, it is better for the government to manage our forestlands well than to manage them badly. But no one is asking the important questions that go to the heart of the problem, such as: Is the federal government itself a main part of the problem? Are the secretaries of agriculture and the interior the best people to oversee this reduction? Do we really need a layer of federal bureaucracy to accomplish a task that can more efficiently be done by state and local governments and private enterprise?

As we have seen, federal ownership and mismanagement of vast tracts of forestland is a big part of the problem of rampant forest fires. Sound constitutional and management principles dictate that the federal government should get out of the forestry business and turn over the national forests to the states. The states, in turn, would be wise to divest themselves of much of these vast estates through privatization. Free-market principles and private ownership of natural resources provide better stewardship of the environment than government can ever hope to offer, especially a distant, bureaucratic behemoth. Private property owners possess a much stronger incentive to protect the environment than do government bureaucrats. This is particularly true when the properly is forestland because, as the timber industry reminds us, trees are America's renewable resource. The value of forestland increases or de creases to the extent that its owners carefully manage it.

Private lumber and paper companies have a powerful economic incentive to carefully manage their forestland, to keep access roads well maintained, and to harvest enough wood to prevent a dangerous buildup of surplus fuel. Private timber land is managed and cultivated as carefully as farmland. In contrast, when forests come under federal ownership timber harvesting is done haphazardly, sometimes to excess, often not at all. Access roads, necessary for firefighting, may be shut down to pacify environmentalists.

Federal ownership of forestland minimizes responsibility for it, following the principle once taught by Aristotle that those things that are owned collectively are "equally neglected by all alike." The most important step that could be taken to provide for better management of our nation's forest is privatization. While this may seem like a novel idea to many people, it has worked very well in areas where private ownership and management of forests has a tradition. Just one example of such private ownership is the forestland owned and managed by the paper manufacturer Finch, Pruyn & Co., Inc., one of the largest private landowners in New York State. According to the company's website:
 Finch, Pruyn has made a deep commitment
 to protecting the beauty and
 natural resources of its forests and the
 wildlife that make their homes there,
 while continuing to help meet society's
 ever-increasing demand for
 forest products. Our professional
 foresters care for our 166,000 acres of
 forest in New York's Adirondack region
 on a sustainable basis, so that the
 forests will provide open space, wood
 for Finch Paper and other important
 products, and homes for wildlife
 today and for generations to come.

According to the company's neighbors, the above statement is not just empty, corporate self-promotion. The company's forestland is highly praised for its scenic beauty, abundant wildlife, and recreational opportunities for hunting, fishing, hiking, canoeing and cross-country skiing. Adirondack-area property owners and environmentalists named Finch, Pruyn & Co. the 1999 Adirondack Steward of the Year for outstanding forest ownership. Similar exemplary forest management is provided by many thousands of private owners across the country.

With the possibility of private management of forestland such as this, there is no reason to allow continued monopoly control of 191 million acres of our national forests by a federal bureaucracy that has proven itself incompetent, and obstinately negligent to the point of criminality. Private owners not only have proven that they manage the forest resources more efficiently, but they can, and do, make their forests available to the public for every conceivable recreational use. By contrast, the public forests have been closing more and more land to human use.

An obvious benefit to professional commercial management of forestland, in view of the recent wildfires in Southern California, is that a well-managed forest, periodically thinned of surplus combustible material, is much more resistant to wildfires than our federally owned lands. Instead of spawning out-of-control fires that destroy thousands of homes, the forests can provide lumber to build millions of homes. The benefits of private ownership, versus the liabilities of continued federal mismanagement, are striking.

The beginning of the solution, as with all problems caused by too much government, starts with Congress. It is time for a truly revolutionary approach to our national forest crisis, an approach that points back toward constitutional principles and common sense. It is time to tell your representatives that instead of taking more of our tax dollars to buy up still more forestland to be destroyed by federal mismanagement, the federal government should get out of the forestry business. It is time for Congress to take these precious resources away from the abusive bureaucrats and truly give them to the American people.
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Title Annotation:Environment
Author:Mass, Warren
Publication:The New American
Date:Dec 1, 2003
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