If your teenager smacked the family car into a tree, would you hand him the keys to a brand-new BMW convertible?
Ill-advised as that sounds, Congress is pondering an equally bone-headed move. In recent weeks, still-smoldering wildfires have scorched 6.6 million acres, an area larger than Delaware and Massachusetts combined. These blazes have killed at least eight people and incinerated more than 400 homes.
Nonetheless, the Senate soon may authorize a $45 billion bill that would buy more land for Uncle Sam's portfolio. Until federal authorities prove they can manage the acreage they already control, Congress should impose a complete moratorium on new land acquisitions.
While Washington is blameless for the lightning strikes and parched conditions that have ignited and nourished these infernos, federal policies have fanned their flames.
A 75 percent fall-off in logging through the Clinton-Gore years has helped boost the density of America's forests to about 700 trees-per-acre, versus about 70 in 1900. Such crowding can be troublesome, even in the absence of fires. Overgrowth "hinders browse growth for deer and other animals to eat," says Holly Fretwell of the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman, Montana. "It also increases the susceptibility of trees to insects."
The Clinton-Gore administration ignored the General Accounting Office's August 1999 prediction that "it is only a matter of time before catastrophic wildfires become widespread." The administration diverted taxpayer dollars from the Interior Department's fire-safety activities to acquisition of new national monuments. According to H. Sterling Burnett of the National Center for Policy Analysis, this year's budget fell from $322 million to $305 million; the 2001 request plunged 26 percent, from $400 million to $297 million. The administration also has closed forest roads and slowed the construction of new ones, thus keeping firefighters from the flames.
Federal regulators then tied firefighters' hands with red tape. As the Washington Times reported, officials have prevented bulldozers from building fire breaks because they might scar terrain (as if flames wouldn't). Instead, firefighters have had to remove trees with axes, causing deadly delays.
To protect the officially "threatened" Bull Trout, fire retardant has been prohibited near Montana waterways, and firefighters have had to limit their use of stream water. Consequently, flames spread — with predictable and tragic results. "Now the water is completely gone," a firefighter told the Times's Audrey Hudson. "It just boils down to steam and everything is dead in there anyway." The Bull Trout thus join countless elks, moose and beavers sacrificed on Washington's altar to Gaia.
Given this calamitous record, it is unconscionable that Washington even would consider grabbing more real estate to mismanage and potentially torch. Yet the delightfully nicknamed Conservation and Reinvestment Act would do just that. Alas, CARA is nowhere as sweet as she sounds.
CARA would govern federal land purchases through 2015. That's three times more command and control than ever attempted under Uncle Joe Stalin's notorious Five-Year Plans. This measure is as vast as the American West itself. It would finance seven different environmental trust funds that would require tax expenditures without annual Congressional approval. Rep. Charles Stenholm (D-Tex.) denounced CARA as "a mandatory spending stream outside of the appropriations process."
CARA already squeals with political pork. The House-approved version frees money for Louisiana dock construction, sports-stadium subsidies, and even new police officers for Alaska's Eskimo communities. The mean streets of Nome will never be the same again.
Property owners should fret about this bill. Federal and state authorities could use both "adverse condemnation" power and a billion dollars annually to seize private property. In laymen's terms, bureaucrats could boot you from your land and compensate you what they wish.
Finally, there is just no need to give Washington's land junkies their next fix. The federal government already owns a quarter of America's acreage and roughly half of the land out West. Sixty-four percent of Utah and 80 percent of Nevada belong to the feds. But what about the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone? Only 13 percent of federal property can be defended as national parks. But on this, too, the feds are bungling. The National Park Service alone faces an estimated $5 billion in backlogged maintenance.
With his reverse Midas touch, Uncle Sam usually turns gold into lead --or lately, trees and wildlife into smoke. Rather than throw more fuel onto the Western fires, the Senate should extinguish CARA. Instead, it should ban further federal land grabs at least until officials at the Interior Department, Forest Service, and other agencies can prove that they are not just joyriding through America's wilderness.