A Scorched-Earth Debate Hits West

Smoke still is rising from vast scorched acreage in the Rocky Mountain West, and fire continues ruthlessly to consume the tinderbox that much of the West has become due to shortsighted federal fire-control policy. And the finger-pointing and blame-laying already have begun as timber interests and environmentalists, government bureaucrats and sagebrush rebels attempt to use this summer's firestorms to score debate points and advance their competing agendas.For the timber industry – which has been on the defensive during the Clinton/Gore years, as tree harvesting on public lands has been cut 74 percent – the fires provide painful proof of wrongheaded federal land-management practices and an object lesson to the public that forests should be managed as renewable resources rather than just worshiped on weekends away from the city. Timbermen see the judicious use of a chain saw and the reopening of shuttered sawmills across the West as the solution to the problem of the dense, fire-prone thickets into which formerly well-managed forests have been turned.Environmentalists, however, many of whom hold a “zero-cut” position on public-lands timber – a position that some see as having contributed to the current crisis – suddenly and uncharacteristically are on the defensive, groping for ways to deflect the heat and turn the situation to their advantage. Though a few “greens” are waking to the fact that chain saws might be required to manage forests and prevent further crises, most are attempting to spin the issue in directions beneficial to their crusades against cattle ranchers and “urban sprawl.”On the ground, meanwhile, the inferno has claimed more than 5 million acres in nearly a dozen states, blackening swaths from the Rockies west to the Cascades and Sierras, wreaking economic havoc and exhausting fire-containment crews. Nine firefighters have perished. The military has been called out to help. Billions of dollars in natural resources have gone up in smoke. And a blistering debate is brewing about who should bear the blame for the catastrophe and what is the wisest course of action now that Westerners find themselves trapped in a tinderbox. In Montana, where 86 major fires had at press time ravaged more than 1.1 million acres, Republican Gov. Marc Racicot declared the Treasure State a disaster area and ordered evacuation of large parts of the Bitterroot Valley. In Idaho, where more than 1 million acres have burned, officials closed the 2.4 million-acre Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, while flames engulfed large portions of the Salmon-Challis National Forest. And in Wyoming, the south entrance to Yellowstone National Park temporarily was closed by a wildfire.Though fire-fighting crews were called in from all across the country, and from Canada as well, many fires were left to burn themselves out due to lack of manpower and equipment.Meanwhile, the situation was heating up in the public arena as well, with billows of recriminations filling Washington with smoke. A House subcommittee announced plans to hold hearings to determine why funding requested by the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, to prevent forest fires was diverted instead to several pet Clinton/Gore programs – including the unilateral creation of nearly a dozen new national monuments despite objections by Congress and elected leaders of the states most affected.The president recently announced $150 million in emergency funding to fight the Western wildfires. But the White House reportedly was far stingier about both fire-prevention and fire-fighting funds before the forests began to burn. According to the Washington Times, the White House cut the BLM's fiscal 2000 budget request of $322 million for fire preparedness to $305 million, while increasing the Interior Department's funding for new land acquisitions from $15 million to $49 million. Even greater fire-fighting cuts were proposed by the White House for fiscal 2001 from the $400 million requested by BLM to $297 million.Republican Rep. Rick Hill, Montana's lone congressman, demanded the hearings after the funding diversion was reported, saying the case suggested that Clinton-Gore's “misplaced priorities” have “exacerbated” a fire season that has hit his state hard. “Clinton and [Vice President Al] Gore have taken many steps to ensure funding for their lands-legacy initiative,” Hill told the Times, “but it now looks like their real legacy will be the historic fires of 2000.””We could have all the preparation in the world, but there is no way of knowing we would have this kind of year,” countered John Wright, an Interior Department spokesman. That “this kind of year” would happen sooner or later, however, long was predicted by many experts – including the auditors at the U.S. General Accounting Office, or GAO, who warned of the looming threat last August. “Unless action is taken, it is only a matter of time,” the GAO reported, “before catastrophic wildfires become widespread.” Montana's governor alleged that events in the West were both predictable and preventable, had the federal government stuck to sound forest-management practices during the Clinton years.Wright and Hill also seized on the crisis to counter the Clinton-Gore “roadless initiative,” which proposes to ban road construction on 40 million acres of national forest, explaining that it would further inhibit efforts to control wildfires and restore forests to a proper balance.In hard-hit Montana, residents attending a U.S. Forest Service meeting seemed to share Gov. Racicot's harsh assessments of the federal role in the current crisis, according to one published account, and seemed to want to make “Who Burned the West?” a battle cry. “We have some elections coming, and we can take back the West!” one attendee reportedly said. “We have sat on our butts enjoying the beauty and let the environmentalists take over this country!” Said another: “This fire did not start a week ago; it started 15 years ago, when we stopped selective logging. We had an economy then. We don't have one now.”Other Western politicians also have leapt into the fray as the wildfire season has burned into the political season. “We should have had more people prepared and trained, but in their mad rush to an environmental legacy this administration has ignored the basics of managing our resources,” charged Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, where more than 500,000 acres of forest have burned. And the governor of Texas, George W. Bush – who happens also to be the Republican nominee for president – even tried to make a little political hay by saying that restrictive federal logging policies have “made the forests much more dangerous.”Green groups and their allies in government may be feeling the heat but have seized on the fires to further their own agenda against timber cutting, cattle ranching and “urban sprawl.” Many argue, for instance, that grazing cattle also contribute to the situation because cows, consuming the green grass, denude the meadows, which actually slow the spread of fires, and stomp the range flat and hard. Greens also argue that zoning laws and building codes should be tightened and development curtailed in areas where man encroaches upon nature.Interestingly, this is a debate rooted in U.S. history, with origins in the same West that is burning today. In August 1910 a firestorm that has gone down as the “Big Blowup” ripped across 3 million acres of Idaho, Montana and Washington state, leveling whole towns, killing 85 people (78 of them firefighters) and casting off such a cloud that it kept the streetlights on during daylight as far away as Watertown, N.Y. Some observers find it ironic that the fear of fire spawned by the Big Blowup, and the decades of federal management of forests to clear out excessive fuel build-up, have been followed by the Clinton/Gore reversal of policies that critics say is bound to go down as responsible for one of the worst wildfire seasons ever. What worries some observers even more is that worse is yet to come.Urbanites and suburbanites, meanwhile, if they care enough to tune into the commotion about underlying causes, are receiving a crash course in forest-management history and techniques via the evening news and editorial pages. They learned, for instance, that small fires actually can be beneficial to forest health – contrary to the stern lecturing of Smokey Bear, that furry propagandist for the U.S. Forest Service – and that the thick, logger-free, supposedly pristine forests extolled by environmentalists are not necessarily healthy, fire-resistant forests.On the contrary, a century of federal fire-suppression activities, combined with a recent sharp decline in timber harvesting, has led to dense, disease-prone stands of spindly, fire-friendly trees that are starved for sun, rotting in place and easy targets for insect infestation. Conifer forests of a century ago may have had 25 to 70 mature, fire-resistant trees per acre whereas today, after a century of fire-suppression and Clinton/Gore efforts to restrict logging, the same acre might have more than 10 times that number. “Because we've been controlling fires for so long, we are pushing them outside the range where they might have been manageable,” claims Ann Bartuska, director of forest management for the U.S. Forest Service. “We need to take action.”That's because today's wildfires spawn a host of additional ecological complications, including mudslides and erosion of precious topsoil, silted-up rivers and reservoirs, destroyed animal habitat and cauterized soil and seeds that will sprout no life. The fires that consumed one-third of Yellowstone National Park in 1988, and another bad fire season in 1994, prompted a sharp reversal among federal forest managers toward a more aggressive program of setting small fires, or “prescribed burning,” to burn out the fuels. But the new approach came too late to avert the current crisis and has itself produced conflagrations such as that near Los Alamos, N.M. (see “Uncle Sam Gets Burned Out West,” June 19).Faced with the unpleasant consequences of misguided policies, even some die-hard environmentalists are seeing things in a different light. Rex Wahl, executive director of the Forest Guardians – a New Mexico-based group that has taken a “zero-cutting” position on timber harvesting – after having seen his own home threatened earlier this year by the Los Alamos fire, is one environmentalist who seems ready to concede a place in the grand scheme of things for tree harvesting.”Wildfires are getting bigger, burning hotter and the effects are more devastating,” Wahl recently told the Associated Press, suggesting that changing circumstances demand a rethinking on anticutting dogma. “It's clear we'll have to take mechanical steps like thinning before we can use fire to restore these forests to a more natural regime,” said Wahl, who rejects the idea of clear-cutting but concedes that “judicious cutting of trees is what's needed” under the present circumstances.But the greens' suspicions of the timber industry run deep (and are mutual) and every proposal that includes harvesting is seen by some as a Trojan horse inviting yet another rape of the forests. “I'm still waiting to see a thinning project where they will take only the trees that are causing the problem,” says Sharon Galbreath, a Sierra Club spokeswoman in Flagstaff, Ariz. “They want to take large trees, too.”Yet even in the unlikely case that the government suddenly opens large swaths of the forest to harvesting as a short-term solution, overriding the objections and legal challenges likely to come from environmental groups, another ironic hurdle might stand in the way of prompt action – the fact that under the Clinton/Gore administration many U.S. sawmills have been closed all across the West. Former loggers and logging companies have disappeared and disbanded; some mill communities have dried up and blown away.”Sometimes you have to cut some trees just to reduce the fuels sufficiently to allow safe burning,” according to John Stuart, a professor of forestry at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif. Cutting trees not only would serve to defuel forests, but raise funds for better stewardship. “It's politically volatile, but if you could sell some trees, you could ultimately have money to pay for the treatment of additional acres,” he argues.Whatever the eventual solution, with more than 40 million acres of Western forest susceptible to catastrophic wildfire, it will not come quickly or cheaply. The Forest Service is reported to be preparing a forest-restoration plan for Congress that may cost as much as $12 billion and require a tenfold increase in current spending levels. The lumber industry, meanwhile, is claiming that the solution is as simple as letting them plant and harvest the forests as a renewable asset.And unless action is taken, say experts, wildfires and their consequences are likely in the next few years to ravage even more of the country. “It is apparent that time is running out for a strategy to successfully avert high-cost, high-loss consequences,” Forest Service chief Mike Dombeck is reported to have written in the plan he is submitting to Congress.