Burn Baby, Burn?

In the unforgettable summer of 1988, the nation watched as uncontrollable forest fires destroyed half of Yellowstone National Park, the world's first national park, a natural site considered so significant that it had been designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations.

President Reagan sent in the U.S. military to help stop the conflagration and temporarily called a halt to the federal policy of allowing so-called natural fires to burn uncontrolled.

Overlooked in the smoke and heat by most people was the remark by one of Yellowstone's highest-ranking ecologists.

As he watched the fire sweep down onto one of his “study plots,” he is reported to have enthused “Burn, baby, burn!”

Odd though it may seem, that remark summed up the philosophy underlying the management of our federally owned forestlands and all of their wildlife, natural resources and environmental amenities.

Admittedly, much of the fault for recent fires lies in a century of misguided governmental policy that assumes that fire is an unnatural evil to be prevented at all costs.

That policy leads over time to vast accumulations of undergrowth, brush, overcrowded, dying and dead trees throughout the federal forests-the so called “fuel loads” we now hear so much about and which help fire spread out of control.

But it has been vastly exacerbated by environmental policies of “natural regulation” which now dominate management decisions in most federal land agencies.

In 2000 the combination of all these policies with drought and tinder-dry conditions across the West led to the destruction of about 8.4 million acres of lands and a considerable amount of their wildlife and habitat.

While most attention was focused on Los Alamos and the threat to the nuclear research facilities, a telling lesson took place a few hundred miles to the west, where another government set “prescribed” fire broke out of “control” on the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park and burned down substantial acreage in the Kaibab National Forest.

All timber harvest in the Kaibab had been stopped years earlier by radical environmentalists and compliant federal bureaucrats because it might cause some unspecified harm to the federally threatened Mexican Spotted Owl, of which a few had been reported, and the Northern Goshawk, which was not on the Endangered Species List, but which environmentalist groups were lobbying to place there.

Elimination of the timber supply led directly to the closure of the only timber company and saw mill in northern Arizona. That devastated the community of Fredonia, Ariz.

Soon the only trace of the company was its abandoned foundations, although the Forest Service office was still fully staffed and maintained a sizeable fleet of its unique pale green vehicles.

Not long before the Kaibab fire, the former president of the Fredonia timber company received a phone call from one of the officials in the Kaibab National Forest, remarking that the health of the forest was rapidly deteriorating without any management, thinning or harvest.

Young growth was increasing in density to the point where an unhealthy and unsustainable number of “stems” per acre were weakening all the trees as they competed ever more intensely for available water and nutrients. Could the company, the Forest Service wondered, restart its mill in Fredonia, bid on some of the trees and through selective harvest help improve the health of the forest?

The former president responded that the mill was now a hole in the ground. The buildings, equipment and saws had long been sold, and the workers had moved to other parts of the nation where forestry jobs still existed. Even if all that were replaceable, there was no guarantee that the Forest Service would ever actually permit any of the Kaibab trees to be harvested, or enough of them, or of a large enough size, to be profitable.

Furthermore, nothing could or would prevent the environmentalist radicals from going to court, prospecting for a sympathetic judge who knew that harvesting trees would destroy Mother Earth, and enjoining any potential sale.

The result was that the forest became ever less well managed, with increased fuel loads.

When the “prescribed burn” swept into the Kaibab, not only did forest burn — but along with it went the habitat and homes of the very species that the termination of timber harvest was designed to preserve. That sad, deplorable and irrational saga has been regularly repeated in recent years.

The nation needs to learn from the example of the carefully managed private forestlands across the country, where landowners practice good stewardship, carefully managing their forests by removing diseased, insect- and beetle-ridden, dying and dead trees before they create excess “fuel loads” which would otherwise threaten the forest, its wildlife and public environmental amenities.

In northern California, which is characterized by a checkerboard pattern of private and federal forestlands, one can easily determine from the air whether one is flying over private or government lands by observing the health, condition and color of the forests.

Enough congressmen have been on such forest fact-finding trips that they should begin to apply some of the lessons before we destroy more of our forests and wildlife.

In September 2000, Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage, R-Idaho, chair of the Forests and Forest Health Subcommittee of the House Resources Committee, held hearings on private conservation and the lessons the nation could learn from exemplary private landowners.

Skeet Burris, a South Carolina tree farmer and the American Tree Farm System's “National Tree Farmer of the Year,” was asked if he practiced controlled burns on his private forestland.

He replied that he did because it was necessary to protect the health of his pines and that fire was an integral part of the ecosystem of the southern pine forests. He said he burned about one-third of his forest annually.

Chenoweth-Hage asked if, before he began his burns, he waited until there was a huge fuel build-up, a long drought, and an especially hot spell with low humidity and high winds. To some laughter, Burris responded that such a policy would be insane.

When he was told that such conditions were characteristic of prescribed burns on the national forests, he explained that he couldn't afford to take such risks.

His forests and home were all that he owned and that his children and grandchildren would inherit. Furthermore he couldn't risk his controlled burn destroying his neighbors' forests and homes because he would personally be held liable. There would be no taxpayers to foot the bill, no transfer to another forest, no early retirement on a taxpayer pension, no other golden parachutes.

As the landowner he would personally bear the costs — and that drove his behavior.

As we once again watch our precious environmental assets go up in smoke, it may be high time to question a philosophy of “Burn, Baby, Burn” and “natural management.”

As long as man is part of nature, we can only have a sound and healthy environment by the exercise of caring stewardship and management. For guidance in that we must now look to the nation's successful private conservationists.