With wildfires burning, it is useful to turn to the wisdom of the ancients. When the pioneers first entered the great forests of America, they found that the Native Americans had managed the forests for centuries. Their woodlands contained very few big trees—maybe fifty such trees per acre. Apparently the Indians had set regular, low intensity fires which burned away accumulations of undergrowth, deadwood, dying trees and particularly small trees growing between the big trees. The larger trees were unharmed, because of their thick fire-resistant bark. These fires kept the forest healthy by providing a barrier to disease.
The pioneers, however, used much more wood in their civilization than the Native Americans. They needed it for housing, for boats and river ships, for railroad sleepers, for carriages, and for town infrastructure. To them, fire was an enemy. Quick growth of new trees was important. Policies were put in place that suppressed all fire. This culminated in the creation of Smokey Bear in 1945. Three years later, his catchphrase was born: "Remember — only you can prevent forest fires."
The price was a degradation of the health of American forests. Private logging firms continued to keep forests healthy where they operated, by clearing out the underbrush and deadwood and harvesting trees to clear spaces between other trees. Where loggers did not operate, undergrowth and deadwood began to accumulate. These are dangerous, because small trees, for example, provide ladders for the fire to climb to reach the crown of mature trees, where the fires can take hold instead of being shrugged off by the thick bark below.
Meanwhile, more and more land came to be controlled by the federal government, and therefore came under the control of an under-funded bureaucracy.
In the 1970s, the birth of the environmental movement made American forest policies worse. Environmentalists are dogmatically opposed to man’s interference with nature. They objected to the "unnatural" control of forest fires created by natural means—by lightning strike, for example. A new policy replaced the previous one of suppression of all fires. Natural fires were to be allowed to burn until they burned themselves out – a return to a natural cycle of death and regrowth. One environmental activist put it succinctly: "Save a forest; let it burn."
Environmental dogma combined with bureaucratic collectivism to create disaster. Superimposing natural-burn policies on top of a hundred-year accumulation of fuel was like leaving a tinderbox out in the sun.
This was why, in 1988, a million acres of Yellowstone National Park burned to the ground as the combination of overgrown forests and natural burn led to catastrophe. The Forest Service changed its policies, realizing it needed to manage forests better. In 1998, the Service calculated it would need about $725 million a year to clear out forests by "managed burns." Bill Clinton’s Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt appreciated the urgency of the problem. Following the wildfires of 2000, he said, "These forests are too thick. They’re explosive, they’re dangerous and the reason is that fire has been excluded for one hundred years and there is too much fuel in the forests, too many trees." In the 1890s, the average Ponderosa pine stand would have held twenty to sixty trees per acre. A century later, it holds three hundred to nine hundred trees.
Yet just as the scale of the problem became clear, environmentalists intervened again. Before the 1990s, commercial logging companies had been allowed access to the national forests for a fee that was placed in a trust fund, something that helped keep the forest service within budget and provided extra funds for fire control when needed. Moreover, logging represents a way to thin forests without the risk of managed burns. Loggers benefit, the forest benefits and the public and taxpayers benefit.
Liberal environmentalists, however, hate the idea that anyone should ever profit from a collectivized national resource like the forests. Throughout the past decade, using the Endangered Species Act and various other legislative devices, they reduced the amount of logging in national forests by some 80 percent. So the forest service’s budget was squeezed just when it needed extra money. In 1991, 13 percent of its budget was spent on fire control, but by 2006 that had ballooned to 45 percent as a result of the loss of the logging fees.
The wildfires we see year after year are in fact the result of well-meaning but foolish policies imposed to the detriment of forests, wildlife and people. It is time to cease bowing to the demands of DC-based environmental lobbyists. Otherwise, the forests of the west and those who live near them will continue to be at needlessly increased risk of wildfire.