American Inferno: Greens Fiddle While Forests Burn

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Acts of God spark most forest fires, but the actions of men and their governments share responsibility for the fact that fires have in recent years reached “biblical” proportions. In this country, decades of government mismanagement of public lands have created a forest crisis of unprecedented dimensions, with an estimated 70 million acres of public forests vulnerable to wildfire and tens of millions more under all-out assault from insects, disease, and invasive species. But in an excruciating irony, environmental groups that most loudly proclaim their love for the forests have become the single greatest obstacle to saving them.


To understand why this is so, readers must suspend for a moment all they think they know about the hinterland. The problem today isn’t too few trees, for instance; it’s too many. That’s because 90 years of systematic federal suppression of small and moderate-sized fires that benefit forest health – following the fire-phobic dictates of Smokey the Bear – have turned many public forests into overgrown tangles that are ripe for wildfires and hasten the spread of disease and infestation. To most people, a dark and densely wooded forest may be aesthetically pleasing – but biologically, it may be choking itself to death.


We had fair warning of this emerging crisis after sections of Yellowstone National Park burned in the late 1980s. But federal land agencies were prevented from taking any serious action – indeed, they even adopted non-management as their prevailing mode of “stewardship” – under pressure from environmentalists, who oppose virtually all human meddling in forests. The tactics of protest and litigation perfected by an army of vocational activists not only brought the U.S. wood-products industry to its knees – as intended – but tied land agencies up in procedural knots that often prevented any harvesting of trees, even when it was necessary to improve forest health.


But now the battle has been joined, set off by monstrous fires that are rousing Americans to the nature of the threat. Many western politicians are blaming the enviros, and the enviros – unaccustomed to being on the defensive and suddenly short on moral superiority – are lashing back or changing the subject. They have been pointing to a “report” issued by the General Accounting Office last year supposedly showing very few instances in which environmental groups blocked wildfire-mitigation efforts. While more than 1,600 such mitigation projects were funded in fiscal 2001, the report purportedly indicates, environmental groups were only involved in 20 legal appeals.


But according to a Capitol Hill source, numbers soon to be released by the Forest Service will paint a far different picture. An internal review indicates that in some Forest Service regions where the wildfire threat is highest, as many as 60 percent of wildfire-mitigation efforts have been appealed since the National Forest Plan was instituted in August 2001. “They’re using the report to put out an exceedingly false picture,” the source says of environmental groups. “But when that picture is seen in its entirety, it won’t be a pretty one for them.”


The now-famous GAO “report” in reality is a GAO “letter,” a quick and preliminary answer to a fairly narrow inquiry from members of Congress; in this case, Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho and Rep. Scott McInnis of Colorado. It consists of little more than a catalogue of 1,671 mitigation projects funded in 2001, listed by geographic region, followed by a brief synopsis of 20 instances in which projects were appealed by environmental groups. There is no context provided, with which a casual reader could glean the document’s deeper meaning or deficiencies. And that redounds to the benefit of the green groups brandishing it. Sources inside GAO and on Capitol Hill caution that the letter provides only a one-year snapshot, taken at an unrepresentative time of transition when the National Fire Plan was just getting up and running; it in no way tells the whole story.


One expert points out that many of the projects listed had been on the shelf, waiting for funding, and the required paperwork and scientific analysis had been completed in advance, leaving no opportunity for appeal from outside groups. Hundreds more projects included in the tally aren’t really relevant to the debate, because they’re not in the western U.S., where the threat of wildfires is most acute. The wildfire-mitigation money was distributed widely, rather than focused where it was most needed. Nearly 400 of the projects listed were in the Midwest or Southeast, where the most radical groups aren’t as active. Seventeen of the 20 appeals identified by GAO occurred in the Rocky Mountains and California’s High Sierras, where the threat from wildfire is rated exceptionally high by the Forest Service. Environmental obstructionism was greatest, in other words, where the need for action was most dire.


Concerns that the GAO document was being misused have prompted Craig and McInnis to ask the agency to take a more comprehensive look at the numbers. The lawmakers contend that the GAO’s preliminary tally also failed to indicate that many of the listed projects were “categorical exclusions” (actions that are not subject to appeal), and that it overlooked the fact that one appeal can potentially halt dozens of individual projects, since many different elements can be bundled into a single forest-restoration project.


It was also a mistake to confine the scope of the inquiry to the last two or three years. The forest crisis was apparent to anyone paying attention at least as far back as the late 1980s; there was a twelve-year window of opportunity for action to save the forests. The conduct of environmental groups over this period should be examined. Take one example – a case that should have made the GAO’s list, but didn’t. A 1999 proposal to thin out the dangerously fire-prone Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona was appealed and challenged in court by the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. A final decision was still on hold when large parts of the forest (and nearby towns) were engulfed in the recent conflagrations in that state.


The same group was involved in at least five other legal efforts to block fire mitigation projects in Arizona dating back to 1997: Three were on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, and two on the equally fire-prone Coconino National Forest. The group was joined in some of those actions by the Sierra Club and other enviro groups.


The costly and time-consuming barrage of lawsuits seems to have left many Forest Service personnel feeling risk-averse, defeated, overwhelmed. Several agency personnel interviewed last year during research on the salvage-timber controversy told me that they wouldn’t even bother going through the laborious process of putting out bids for the removal of burned and dead trees, because they just assumed the actions would be delayed or blocked by political opposition and litigation.


Critics dismiss the controversy and debate over who or what is responsible for the current state of affairs as “government bashing” or “the blame game.” Yet viable solutions are inseparable from an accurate diagnosis of problems. And as the above history suggests, greens and government are at least as complicit in the current crisis (and perhaps more so) than are acts of God.


Today the nation stands in a fire trap of its own methodical construction. If it’s going to escape from even greater devastation, Americans are going to have to develop a more sophisticated, realistic, less-romanticized understanding of nature and man’s relationship to it. In that regard, they should recall the wisdom of Aldo Leopold, a renowned forester and conservationist often held up as a hero by the very groups that are loving the forests to death. “Conservation is a positive exercise of skill and insight,” advised Leopold, “not merely a negative exercise in abstinence and caution.”