Unfocused Federal Wildfire Effort Draws Fire From States

Unfocused Federal Wildfire Effort Draws Fire From States

Paige Column In Insight Magazine
February 24, 2002

Following the lead of New Mexico — which not long ago declared mismanaged federal lands in the state to be disaster areas and threatened intervention unless Washington took aggressive action to thin out overgrown, wildfire-prone public forests — South Dakota Republican Gov. Bill Janklow reportedly is planning to sue the U.S. Forest Service later this spring for its mismanagement of the Black Hills National Forest. Janklow wants the forest cleared of the diseased, dying and dead trees that invite wildfires and pose a serious risk to public health and safety. Though it might be a shakedown by the state for federal largess, the lawsuit could shine a critical light on policies that have led to tens of millions of acres of public forests becoming disease-blighted tinderboxes. In a perfect world, it also would prompt national debate on how nonmanagement of federal lands became the prevailing management strategy of the federal government and how poorly written laws, bureaucratic red tape and litigious environmental groups have contributed to this monumental waste of public resources. "This is going to be a big lawsuit with several attorneys involved," asserted Janklow, who said he looked forward to getting Forest Service officials on the stand, where they, too, presumably will feel a little heat. Although ample evidence exists supporting his allegation of federal negligence, exhibit A could be a stack of General Accounting Office (GAO) reports dating back nearly five years that not only warned of the impending wildfire crises, but documented the government's disjointed and ineffectual responses to it. In its latest critique, GAO reports that as much as $1 billion in federal firefighting funds could have been wasted in the management of low-priority mitigation efforts because of a typically Byzantine "system" for allocating funding. That system, for instance, resulted in the less-wildfire-prone states of Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee receiving as much federal firefighting aid as the arid, fire-blackened Western states of Montana, Idaho, Utah, Nevada and Wyoming. That misapplication of funding becomes even more glaring when considering the huge disparities in public land holdings between the second set of states and the first. A preliminary government list of communities supposedly at risk from catastrophic forest fires inexplicably included New Orleans, Queens, N.Y., and towns in Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands. "By not targeting these communities and areas [in the most fire-prone regions], the risks to human lives and development, as well as to municipal watersheds and individual resources — such as threatened and endangered species, clean water and clean air — are increased," the report in part concluded. What the GAO is too diplomatic to explain (given that it answers to Congress) is that much of the blame for this lies not only with the maladroit, too-territorial government agencies responsible for responding to the crisis, but also with Congress, which can't seem to dole out funding for anything, including national emergencies, without insisting that every state or district get a piece of the pork. This means that resources get allocated based on political pull rather than a rational assessment of real-world priorities.