Copyright 2000 McClatchy Newspapers, Inc
Published in the Sacramento Bee
July 12, 2000
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
Catastrophic forest fires are becoming routine in the American West. The weather has indeed been dry this year, but the fires of 2000 are a disaster whose time has come. They are occurring on lands that have been badly mismanaged, above all by the U.S. Forest Service.
Over the entire West, some 1.6 million acres have burned already this year, and it's still early in the fire season. This problem has resulted from an unnaturally large buildup of dry, highly flammable excess wood in the forests. More than 40 million acres of the national forest system are rated "very unhealthy" and facing an extremely high fire hazard because of past fire suppression. In the Southwestern United States, where the Los Alamos fire burned, fully 85 percent of all national forest lands are considered in poor health and fire-prone. (Although the Los Alamos fire started on National Park Service land, it soon spread to U.S. Forest Service land, where most of the burning occurred.)
Before fire-suppression efforts took their toll, ponderosa pines often grew in open stands with densities between 20 and 55 trees an acre. Smaller trees now grow in the same places with densities of 300 to 900 trees an acre. When a forest fire eventually breaks out, it burns much more intensely. Fires such as this have nothing to do with the lighter fires that historically were a normal part of the natural ecological workings of many forests.
Many people can remember Smokey Bear's caution, "Only you can prevent forest fires," which symbolized decades of past fire suppression by the federal government. Although many of us have fond memories, it turns out that Smokey was wrong.
There are three possible outcomes for today's excess wood. It can be burned in small, prescribed fires. It can be removed mechanically by cutting down and physically carrying out the trees. Or it can be left to burn in occasional large and unintended conflagrations — in other words, more of the kind of forest fires breaking out across the West this year.
Prescribed burns have become the federal government's option of choice, yet there is always the risk, as seen at Los Alamos, that the fire will get out of control — decades of fire suppression have increased that likelihood. There are also other major problems such as air pollution. And now, federal forest managers are even less likely to pursue prescribed burns after the disciplinary action against the superintendent who ordered the burn at Los Alamos.
If anything is to be done, the Forest Service must remove much of the brush and other vegetation by mechanical means. There will have to be an expanded program of timber sales, which removes excess fuels. But mechanical removal appears increasingly at odds with federal policy.
Recently, the U.S. Forest Service announced a moratorium on road building on 43 million acres of national forests, making mechanical removal nearly impossible (imagine trying to remove excess timber without roads). Since 1989, timber harvest levels in national forests have fallen from 12 billion board-feet a year to less than 3 billion. Yet if prescribed burning is unable to do the job and mechanical removal is foreclosed, the de facto policy amounts to waiting for large and unplanned fires. This year we are seeing some of the fruits of that policy.
It is national policy that has set the stage for these fires. These forests would have burned another day as long as their huge inventories of excess fuels remained. The only way to remove these fuels now will be to go in and cut the wood.
If federal forest managers continue to be in denial of common sense, New Mexico, Colorado, Washington state and the rest of the West can expect many more fire disasters this year and in years to come.
Robert H. Nelson is a professor in the school of public affairs at the University of Maryland and associated with the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He is the author of A Burning Issue: A Case for Abolishing the U.S. Forest Service.