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Forests on Fire

Nearly a century of federal land mismanagement.

By Holly Fretwell

Looking out my office window at a brilliant, clear Montana sky, my memories of last summer’s thick smoky haze from uncontrolled wildfires have faded. But the billowing smoke that cloaked the mountains and the gray ash that fell like an early snow is likely to return to Bozeman and other western towns in summers to come.

Naturally, being an election year, the spin masters turned the summer fires into an opportunity to win political points by laying the blame on the Clinton administration. Yet these catastrophic fires that devoured more than six million acres took far more than eight years to kindle. Nearly a century of federal land management–or mismanagement–combined with a severe drought were the true culprits.

Ironically, the U.S. Forest Service was created to provide the best possible management for the nation’s forests and that meant management based on science. Tragically, the agency has failed to fulfill this mission. Despite the fact that it was widely known even in the 1920s that many forest types are fire-dependent, the agency suppressed fire across the landscape. Today, many of our forests are 10 times denser than they were 100 years ago. The recent trend toward reducing timber harvest, “de-industrializing” the forests, and setting more lands aside has only exacerbated forest density and fire dangers. And it is here that the Clintonites can be justly held responsible.

By its own accounting, the Forest Service now has 40 million acres at high risk of wildfire, six million acres of dead and dying trees due to insects and disease, and another 18 million acres where periodic fire should be a normal part of the process that are in dire need of treatment.

Though cool autumn weather eventually snuffed out the wildfires of 2000, the damage had been done. Wildlife was destroyed and driven off the land, fish populations suffocated in muddy torrents, vegetation was scorched off the earth, and biodiversity went up in smoke. Residents of the West lost homes, businesses, recreational opportunities, and the irreplaceable scenic value of their land. And taxpayers paid over $1 billion in firefighting costs.

Like a bad dream that you can’t shake, the aftermath of the fires can be as bad as the fires themselves and longer lasting. Bare, burned soils can erode in seasonal rains. Sediments can clog streams and muddy reservoirs, destroying fish populations and damaging drinking water for large populations. In 1996, the 12,000-acre Buffalo Creek wildfire destroyed the watershed that supplies most of Denver’s drinking water. So far, the city has spent $3 million on restoration efforts and expects to spend another $8 million. Even today, five years later, floods continue to be a problem throughout the burn area.

What our national forests need now is a hands-on approach to management, not a laid-back “let nature take its course” approach. This is where the past administration failed and where the Bush administration must take a stand.

Active forest management has irrefutably saved portions of other national forests from similar devastating wildfires. In Washington’s Wenatchee National Forest, managers removed many of the smaller trees and much of the deadfall from the ground. When the Tyree fire swept through the area in 1994, this section of forest lacked the heavy fuels to feed the fire and thus reduced the intensity of the burn.

Today, a green strip of living trees in the treated area is surrounded by the dead and blackened remains of the wildfire.

Other forests tell a similar tale. The 1994 Star Gulch fire in Idaho’s Boise National Forest burned 30,000 acres, but spared a site previously thinned with mechanical harvest and prescribed burn. Last June, a fire that swept through Arizona’s Kaibab National Forest spared a pilot site that had been thinned to about 10 percent of its former density. Still, such treatments are adamantly fought by environmental groups that successfully sued to reduce the size of similar pilot sites near Flagstaff, Ariz., from thousands of treated acres to just a few hundred.

Now, the pendulum has swung from commodity interests to environmental ones. The names have changed from multiple use (read “timber harvest”) to “ecosystem” management, but the politics have not.

To save what is left of the valuable natural resources on our national forests, the Forest Service must be reformed and the political management subdued. To begin with, forest managers must be given clearly defined goals; the political strings that tie agency budgets to Congress must be cut, allowing managers to respond to the value of the resources at hand; and incentives to manage for ecological health must be provided.

Shy of such reform there is no reason to believe that our national forests will be managed any better under “ecosystem” management than they have for the past century.

Holly Lippke Fretwell is a research associate specializing in public lands at the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman, Mont., and is author of “Public Lands II, Forests: Do We Get What We Pay For?” PERC can be reached at 502 South 19th Avenue, Suite 211, Bozeman, MT 59718, 406-587-9591, fax: 406-586-7555, <>.

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