Forest fires in the United States devastated more than seven million acres in 2000, the worst fire season in the past 50 years. By the end of last year, the federal government had spent more than $1 billion in efforts to fight the blazes. Government officials blamed a number of natural causes — dry weather, high temperatures and strong winds — for the severity of the fires. But forest fires are not wholly unavoidable natural disasters.
In fact, over the last decade, it was more important to the Clinton administration to promote “wilderness values” by creating roadless areas and taking other actions to exclude a human presence. This aggravated last summer’s tinderbox forest conditions and continues to threaten public land.
The heightened danger to national forests is, ironically, the result of longstanding federal efforts to suppress fires going back many decades. Those efforts have produced an enormous buildup of small trees, under-brush, and deadwood that provide “excess fuels” to feed flames. Before the policy of fire suppression, small fires in many forests cleared away excess fuels and thinned competing plant life, leaving these forests less susceptible to devastating fires like the ones of 2000.
Since the advent of the Smokey Bear era in the 1940s, tree density in many federal forests has increased from 50 per acre to as much as 300 to 500 per acre. Federal forests are filled with dense stands of small, stressed trees and plants that combine with dry deadwood to provide virtual kindling wood for forest fires. Those conditions will probably worsen in the coming years in the Pacific northwest as the spotted owl protection plan increasingly limits management options.
Also, because of federal “reforms” launched in the 1970s there is widespread confusion today over land management procedures and purposes. Those reforms have transferred much public land decision-making to non-government groups — environmentalists, developers, timber companies — that have enough legal skill and money to use the courts to override executive decisions.
A management regime now exists in which no one is responsible or accountable for land management. Government inattention through the 1990s to foresters’ repeated warnings of the growing risk of catastrophic fires illustrates this confusion, lack of responsibility and gridlock.
Underlying the gridlock is a growing uncertainty about the mission of the national forests. For many decades, government foresters managed the lands according to a “multiple use” philosophy that encouraged a variety of uses. This reflected a clear utilitarian goal of maximizing human benefits from public recreation, timber harvesting, water supplies, livestock grazing and other uses.
The enactment of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and other legislation shifted the focus of management efforts away from human utility to promoting the ecological condition of the forest for its own sake. Top government officials in the 1990s embraced the philosophy of “ecosystem management” that puts a high premium on achieving forest outcomes that are “natural.”
The Forest Service now works to restore national forests to the ecological condition they had prior to European westward expansion. As part of this effort, agency researchers perform historical and scientific studies to determine the actual status of forests in the mid- to late-nineteenth century.
This philosophy implies a negative moral judgment on much of modern industrial society. It converts national forests into theme parks of the past instead of preserving them as valuable sources of wood, recreation and other outputs.
If the Forest Service and other agencies want to improve the health of federal forests and decrease the danger of massive fires, they must commit to a policy of reducing fuel loads in these forests. As part of this effort, officials should promote controlled commercial harvesting of small diameter trees that can be used by such industries as oriented strand board manufacturing, paper production, and biomass electricity generation. These industries could make efficient use of the wood and might also provide significant revenue to the federal treasury from the tree sales — while reducing fire risks substantially.
In the long run, the federal government should hand the management of most of the national forests over to the states. The current federal ownership of almost 50 percent of the West’s total land area is an historical anomaly preserved by large outlays of federal funds to maintain these lands.
Unless new approaches to land management are adopted, the people of the American West will continue to face a large risk of catastrophic forest fires. Perhaps they must accept some risk for the sake of other forest values, but these citizens — not federal administrators or Washington politicians — should be the ones to set policy and make life-and-death decisions about management of the forests.