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The wildfires that blackened more than 1,200 square miles of <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Southern California this past week were not simply "acts of nature." For most of the 20th century, the Forest Service has failed to manage our national forests properly while treating fire as a virtual moral evil (the California fires are burning in or near four national forests). Unless these policies are reversed, fires that consume millions of acres and inflict billions of dollars in damage will become more and more common.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
In 1998, reflecting the conclusions of earlier government reports, the General Accounting Office (GAO) warned that too little was being done to address the problem of "high levels of fuels for catastrophic fires" that were "transforming much of the region into a tinderbox." The GAO fears were realized in 2000 when forest fires burned 8.4 million acres, the worst fire season in half a century. There was another terrible fire season in 2002, when 6.9 million acres burned and federal fire-fighting costs set a new record of $1.7 billion. In 2003, matters were looking better until Southern California erupted in flames.
In Southern California, clearing out the "excess fuels" that have resulted from past fire suppression, and reconfiguring the landscape to create more firebreaks and other barriers to fire, would have been expensive but feasible. So why didn't government take effective management and policy action to reduce fire risks before total disaster struck last week? Leaving aside the individual human tragedies, the costs would certainly have been less than the $2 billion (and climbing) that is now projected in terms of fire-fighting costs and lost property values. The answer lies in a host of human failures.
The Forest Service has long been the lead agency for thinking about and orchestrating forest management. However, throughout its long history, the agency has made numerous poor policy decisions -- its obsession with fire suppression is far from the only example. For many years, for instance, substantial timber was harvested from the national forests at costs to the Forest Service that exceeded the economic value of the timber.
Seeking to reform the Forest Service, Congress enacted a series of laws in the '70s that required comprehensive planning of all aspects of forest management. The result was to drown the agency in red tape. In 1997, the GAO reported to Congress, "In summary, the Forest Service's decision-making process is broken."
Roger Sedjo, a well-respected forestry expert at Resources for the Future in Washington, became so pessimistic that in 1998 he asked whether "the dialogue should be expanded to seriously consider whether the federal land management problems of the 21st century may not require the creation of new streamlined integrated organizations to replace the outmoded agencies of the past century." Indeed, the case for abolishing the Forest Service grows stronger by the day. The Forest Service manages 10 percent of U.S. lands, which often possess great mineral and other natural resource wealth, and yet requires contributions from U.S. taxpayers of more than $1 billion per year.
Environmental organizations also bear a large responsibility for the general failure to take effective action to reduce the risks of catastrophic fire. They sued the Forest Service and other government agencies at every opportunity to block timber harvesting and virtually any other management action. The Wilderness Act of 1964 symbolized the policy aspirations of the environmental movement that have been increasingly extended to all forests. According to the Act, a wilderness is an area "untrammeled by man."
Because of the fierce opposition of environmental groups, any mechanical thinning of national forests was virtually impossible throughout the 1990s. Even today, having grudgingly accepted the need for some thinning after the disastrous fires of 2000, environmental organizations insist that the government must pay the full costs. A thinning operation that makes a profit is treated like the "usurious" lending of money in the Middle Ages -- you can do it but a private gain is immoral. Even last week, as fires were devastating her own state, Sen. Barbara Boxer declared that any future solutions must not involve "logging."
Even the strongest environmental advocates recognize that forest fire can never be allowed to "run free," as wolves and grizzlies -- also suppressed in the 20th century -- are now increasingly encouraged to do. Yet, environmentalism has shown a virtual religious commitment to the idea that the forests must be restored to their "natural" condition. If this is impossible in concept, it amounts almost to saying that "God is dead." The intellectual -- shall we say theological -- confusions of modern environmentalism, not surprisingly, have yielded a host of confused, unworkable policy goals for the nation's forests. This misguided commitment to "natural" forests culminated with President Clinton's decision to designate 58 million acres of new "roadless" forest preserves -- a potentially major complication for future fire-fighting efforts.
But it is not just the Forest Service that is to blame. Congress should also be held accountable. More than one chief of the Forest Service has testified in recent years to Congress that his agency is hopelessly paralyzed by the confusing statutory framework under which it must operate. Jack Ward Thomas, chief for four years during the Clinton administration, states, "It is time (probably far past time) to rethink the role and mission of the Forest Service." However, even after receiving blunt warnings of future catastrophic fires in the West, Congress dithered for a decade. The actions of the courts have also significantly complicated the management regime, as individual judges have interjected their own policy views on numerous occasions.
The Forest Service was created in the progressive era with a mission to provide "scientific management" on the forests of the nation. By a scientific standard, the track record turned out to be poor. Politics usually dominated science. Moreover, it has become obvious today that forest management involves much more than the application of expert forestry knowledge. In managing forests, fundamental value statements must routinely be made.
The U.S. was once conceived as a grand "melting pot" but it no longer makes sense -- if it ever did -- to nationalize these value judgments. The ecological workings of forests are also very diverse throughout the United States. Forest managers at the national level cannot comprehend the degree of local diversity. In short, what is required is a radical decentralization of national forest management -- indeed, all federal land management -- in the country.
Mr. Nelson, professor of environmental policy at the School of Public Affairs of the University of Maryland, is author of "A Burning Issue: A Case for Abolishing the U.S. Forest Service" (Rowman and Littlefield, 2000).