Fire in Paradise: The Yellowstone Fires and the Politics of Environmentalism

ON AUGUST 20, 1988–A DAY THAT came to be known as “Black Saturday”–about 160,000 acres were consumed by fires in the greater Yellowstone Park area. A dozen or so fires in the area had been burning for a little over a month, and already a half million acres in and around Yellowstone had gone up in flames. Before the fires would be extinguished, they would burn nearly a half-million more, at a total cost of about $120 million. Nationwide, 1988 saw the burning of nearly 6 million acres, the most since 1924.

While only a fraction of the total, the Yellowstone fires received national attention and sparked a heated debate on the management of public lands. Far from a freak accident of nature, the massive fires of 1988 were largely the result of a deliberate National Park Service policy, a policy designed to let forests burn.

The awesome sweep of the Yellowstone fires and the policies that produced them are the subjects of Micah Morrison's Fire In Paradise: The Yellowstone Fires and the Politics of Environmentalism. More narrative than wonkish analysis, Fire In Paradise tells the story of the fires as seen by those who were in charge of their control. After covering the fires for The American Spectator, Morrison spent the next four years conducting research and interviewing the park rangers, government officials, and nearby residents whose lives the fires touched. In the resulting book, he provides a rich and detailed account of the Park Service's attempt to reckon with wildfire. At times, the fire advanced with human acquiescence; at others, concerted human effort was impotent in the face of nature's awesome force.

When the first several fires were identified in mid-July, the official policy at Yellowstone was to do nothing. Fires would produce “no ecological downsides,” according to one Park Service official. As Morrison points out, this policy grew out of the desire to impose “natural regulation” on Yellowstone Park. This means that, as much as possible–i.e., until people or specific properties were directly threatened–Yellowstone was to be left alone. As one official noted, this policy “was simply another logical step to return the park's ecology…to its original state.” A local environmental activist put it more succinctly: “Save a forest; let it burn.”

Where suppression efforts would be allowed, fire-control officials were still responsible for living lightly on the land. This meant that some of the most effective fire-suppression methods were officially off-limits, except in the most extreme cases. By the time firefighters were allowed to use the most powerful techniques–creating control lines with bulldozers and the like–it was too late. The fires had grown too large and were moving too fast.

In more than one instance, spot fires–small, external fires caused by wind-borne embers–would ignite more than a half mile in front of an approaching front. Fires of this magnitude are “a kind of self-sustaining mobile world of destruction,” notes Morrison. They create their own wind and weather and give natural obstacles little heed. If allowed to extend to this point, they will stop only when nature is ready. In 1988, it was not until the mid-September showers that the fires could be subdued.

As ANYONE FAMILIAR WITH THE MANAGEment of federal lands would expect, administrative infighting and bureaucratic ineptitude played a role in the fires' advances. By the end of July, there were 13 “generals” in and around the park, “all of them hammering for attention, resources and clear marching orders.” With so many officials calling the shots, the men in the field often lacked clearly defined objectives and allowable methods. Once a slew of senators, cabinet secretaries, and high-powered journalists arrived, things only got worse. Congressmen were demanding immediate extinguishing of the fires while the Park Service director attempted to defend the status quo. If national coverage of the fires seemed jumbled–papers reported contradictory stories about the status of fire control on the same day–local firemen were in only marginally better shape.

Adding to the confusion was a philosophical disagreement between the Park Service and the other agency involved in fire-suppression efforts, the National Forest Service. Yellowstone National Park is surrounded by national forests, where some of the fires began. The Forest Service's policy of controlling and managing fires was at odds with the Park Service's strategy of allowing forest fires to take their “natural” course, and officials of the two agencies were often less than accommodating to one another while pursuing their separate efforts.

The administrative barriers to effective fire control were significant, but they alone were hardly to blame. The Park Service's partial responsibility isn't because of its inability to implement its policy but because of its policy. As Morrison demonstrates, “Yellowstone Park, in effect, has been burned down by an idea.”

The idea that forest fires should always be left to burn on “natural” lands is popular within the environmental establishment. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition–which includes the local chapters of the National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, and Defenders of Wildlife, among others–was a strong supporter of the Park Service's “let it burn” policy. (Local residents of West Yellowstone, Cooke City, and other nearby towns were not so sympathetic. They rightly feared the power of fire to decimate their homes and destroy their livelihoods.)

Morrison makes it clear that the environmental establishment opposes fire control because it is viewed as unnatural. Human control of fire is tantamount to human control of nature, and human control of nature has been deemed unacceptable. Paradoxically, the environmental establishment, as well as many of the government overseers of public lands, would have federal lands such as Yellowstone managed as if people were never there. The idea is to maintain Yellowstone's integrity as a fully functioning ecosystem.

The simple fact, however, is that people are there, and they always will be there. If “natural” lands are lands without people, then there are no truly “natural” lands left. No matter how the Park Service tries to design its policies, the lands will never be “natural” by this standard until all traces of people are removed–something that never will, and never should, happen. Hikers, campers, sightseers, and the like visit Yellowstone by the thousands, and their presence has an effect. Yellowstone is no longer “natural,” and it should not be managed as if it were. Park officials ignore this lesson only at their own peril, and that of the parks they seek to preserve as well.

Environmentalists are similarly misguided to ignore the development of advanced fire-control techniques, especially since they have been among the most important technological breakthroughs for the health of America's forests. Without reliable fire-control methods, timber companies and private landowners would be far less willing to replant felled trees for fear of losing them (and the investment they represent) in the next uncontrollable fire. With fire control, however, private landowners have led a silvicultural renaissance that has given America more trees in its forests today than at any time in this century. In 1872, a wildfire near Peshtigo, Wisconsin consumed 1 million acres and killed 1,500 people in the process. Back then, modern fire-control techniques were not available. Sadly, they were available in 1988 but went unused until it was too late.