The Forest Service Plays With Fire: Riggs/Simmons Op-Ed in OC Register

Published in the Orange County Register

May 21, 2000<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />


Do you like to play with matches? Does fire fascinate you? If so, maybe you ought to apply for a job with the Park Service or the Forest Service.


You may not be aware that the massive wildfire in Los Alamos, NM, is a predictable result of federal forest management and a harbinger of things to come.


Federal forest management has allowed dead and dying amounts of wood to accumulate in forests, increasing the likelihood of severe fires, threatening the lives and property of people that live near the forest and damaging the ecological health of forests.


Federal land management agencies have mismanaged lands in the past by suppressing all fires and now by limiting management options to prescribed burns.


The system of fire suppression–putting out fires as soon as they are discovered–resulted in an unnaturally large buildup of dry, highly flammable wood in the nation's forests.


This leaves more wood in the forest to burn tomorrow, and the fire hazard continues to grow. Excess timber can be burned up in small, prescribed fires or it can be removed by mechanical means.


Federal forest management has more recently placed a priority on prescribed burns, which should only occur when weather and moisture conditions are just right. But past fire suppression efforts have created conditions that make prescribed burns difficult to control.


The Los Alamos fire started as a small, prescribed burn that quickly went out of control, leaving a trail of devastation.Other prescribed burns have had similar outcomes, such as the fire in northern California last year that burned 23 homes.


Unless it is removed mechanically, most of the surplus wood has to burn eventually.


Mechanical harvesting allows forest managers to remove dead, diseased timber and underbrush, without the risk of catastrophic forest fires.


As the Los Alamos fire amply demonstrates, people and their property are at tremendous risk when they are adjacent to these national tinderboxes. But the option of mechanical removal appears increasingly at odds with the federal government's policies.


In the same week, the Forest Service announced a new moratorium on road building on 43 million acres of national forestland.This moratorium limits forest management by making timber harvesting all but impossible (imagine trying to remove excess timber without roads). Since 1989, harvest levels in forests have fallen from 12 million board feet a year to less than 4 million today.


If mechanical removal is forbidden and prescribed burns fail to do the job, then the de facto policy amounts to waiting for large, unplanned forest fires.


The forest superintendent near Los Alamos who ordered the prescribed burn in unfavorable weather conditions has been put on administrative leave. But it was federal policy that set the stage for the Los Alamos fire, and similar conditions exist today on about 40 million acres of the national forest system.


With the federal government owning nearly one-third of the U.S. landmass, bureaucratic management like “suppress and prescribe” is taking its toll. It's time to hold the federal government responsible for its disastrous outcomes and call for cutting excess timber out of the forest.


The federal government's policy has created massive fire hazards and needlessly puts lives, property and the environment at risk. If we continue to put dangerous and ineffective policy above common sense, we will see more fire disasters like Los Alamos.


Mr. Riggs is director of land and natural resource policy and Mr. Simmons environmental policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.


©2000 The Orange County Register