Fires scorch seven million acres

Published November 1, 2000

This year’s forest fire season in the West may be the worst since the 1930s. Nearly seven million acres have burned–more than twice what is normal for this time of year–and the peak of the fire season is just arriving. The federal government is likely to spend $1 billion for fire fighting . . . and that cost does not reflect the major environmental damage to the forests themselves, air pollution in western cities, and lost tourism business.

While the forests of the West go up in flames, some policy observers see a flicker of hope: It sometimes takes a disaster to force people to reexamine their most fundamental assumptions.

Policy and unintended consequences

The devastating fires of 2000 are a product of national forest policies gone awry. Those policies were dictated by environmental illusions that became entrenched as government dogma.

Western forests are burning today with unprecedented ferocity because of a huge buildup of wood volume. For much of the twentieth century the Forest Service and other agencies actively suppressed fire. Smokey the Bear preached that “only you can prevent forest fires.” It turns out, however, that Smokey was wrong.

Suppressing fire does not eliminate the fire hazard but defers it to another day. In the meantime, the number of trees and volume of wood in the forest continue to increase. The composition of the forest changes.

Historically, frequent light fires swept through ponderosa pine and many other Western forests, cleaning out smaller trees and underbrush but leaving the largest trees unaffected. With the suppression of fire, however, tree densities in many places have now increased dramatically, from 50 per acre to as many as 300 to 500 per acre. The resulting dense stands of small, stressed trees were perfect kindling for the fires burning over the West.

By the early 1990s, many forestry experts were warning that the West faced catastrophic fire conditions if large-scale corrective actions were not taken soon. Almost every year a new expert study appeared describing the tinderbox state of western forests and the large and still growing threat of devastating fire. (See sidebar.) The fires of 2000 are not random acts of nature. Western forests were a disaster waiting to happen, whenever the weather was sufficiently dry and the winds high enough–as turned out to be the case this summer.

Government agencies did not respond effectively to the dire fire danger: An effective response would have required challenging the illusions that had come to drive federal forest policy. As early as the 1960s, the National Park Service adopted a policy to achieve “natural” conditions on the lands under its management. The black bear cousins to Smokey, for example, were removed from the roads of Yellowstone where they long had entertained tourists.

By the 1990s, the Clinton-Gore administration was applying this naturalness philosophy to all federal lands–50 percent of the total land area of the West–under the rubric of “ecosystem management.” On Forest Service lands, a natural condition was conceived to reflect the state of the forest before human efforts had shaped it to meet various “multiple-use” needs. Timber harvesting in the National Forests seldom qualified as natural, and timber harvest levels plummeted: from 12 billion board feet in 1989 to less than 3 billion in 1999.

The philosophy of ecosystem management aimed at restoring natural conditions, however, rests on a bed of sand.

Ecosystem management: Flawed strategy

As a conceptual matter, one big problem with ecosystem management is that, in effect, it requires reading Native Americans out of the human race. American Indians had shaped Western forests for thousands of years by the deliberate setting of fires. If “natural” has to be defined in terms of forest conditions before any human–including Indian–influence, it would generally be impossible to give any substantive content to the goal of ecosystem management.

Even without this philosophical complication, the Western forest fires have convincingly demonstrated the impossibility in practice of being “natural.” There are only three possible outcomes for the excess fuel now found on Western forests: the unwanted trees can be removed by prescribed burning; they can be cut and removed by mechanical thinning; or they can be left to burn in occasional unplanned conflagrations like those being seen today.

Although setting a fire and letting it burn under controlled conditions would hardly seem to qualify as natural, the Clinton-Gore administration opted for this policy as the closest available approximation. Current forest fires are historically unprecedented in their intensity. But at least fire once had been part of the natural ecological workings of the forests, before the government acted to suppress fire for most of the twentieth century.

Still, it was a prescribed fire at Los Alamos, New Mexico that burned out of control earlier this summer, causing the loss of more than 400 homes. Federal forest managers likely will be more cautious than ever to use prescribed fire. Moreover, air pollution concerns and high administrative costs will limit the role of prescribed fire as a forest management policy. The weather has to be just right, not too wet or too dry, and the winds must be low. In some places, a prescribed fire would burn the crowns of all the trees at the site, contrary to the goals of forest management.

In the eyes of ecosystem management theorists, mechanical removal of trees through thinning and logging is less desirable than prescribed burning. In some cases, this practice would be commercially viable, but in others logging firms would have to be paid to remove unwanted vegetation.

Any such removal strategy requires the use of heavy equipment and would be legally prohibited in wilderness areas. Even in areas not designated as wilderness, the Clinton-Gore administration has bowed to pressure from its environmental allies, seeking to extend wilderness values throughout the natural forest system. As a result, little thinning of National Forests has in fact taken place.

With prescribed burns and mechanical removal off the table as forest management options, the Clinton-Gore administration had no alternative but to hope for wet weather and light winds. Washington policymakers gambled that their luck would hold, and that the inevitable large conflagrations across the West would not occur on their watch. They lost.

“Natural” forests a fantasy

Federal forest managers on the ground were put in an impossible position by the tenets of ecosystem management. Nothing they could do–including doing nothing at all–would really be natural. The General Accounting Office and other outside investigators have repeatedly found that the decision-making process in the Forest Service today is “broken,” and that management confusion has resulted in a state of “gridlock.”

Even before the fires of 2000, William Cronon, America’s leading environmental historian, was saying “the time has come to rethink wilderness.” The idea of a truly natural forest is a Disneyland fantasy: as Cronon puts it, a “product of [our] civilization,” reflecting whatever thoughts we put into it.

Nevertheless, the idea of truly natural “wilderness serves as the unexamined foundation on which so many of the quasi-religious values of modern environmentalism rest.” Environmentalists invest the wilderness with, in essence, the qualities of the Garden of Eden.

Cronon thinks these values exert a “pervasive” and “insidious” influence throughout government policy-making for the environment–including national forest policy. They divert attention from the real task, finding the best ways to shape the natural landscape for the future, recognizing that a large human presence is inevitable.

The number of federal acres in wilderness areas, national parks, wildlife refuges, wild and scenic rivers, areas of critical environmental concern, and other lands set aside for preservation purposes has risen from 51 million in 1964 to 271 million today. This amounts to almost half of the total federal land system. In many of these areas it would be impossible to take any mechanical action to thin the forest and to limit fire hazards with any equipment, even though a fire there might spread rapidly to nearby ordinary forest lands.

Cronon’s views have drawn sharp rejoinders from the organized environmental movement. Yet the devastating fires of 2000 are proving that Cronon was right. Seeking to maintain an impossible fantasy world of wilderness values free of human impact is unworkable and potentially harmful.

Looking ahead

Human beings have long shaped the forests, and any forest outcome in the future will be a result of human decisions and actions. Rather than a green forest, current policies are likely to turn today’s wilderness lands into blackened and heavily charred wastelands.

According to Forest Service estimates, 60 percent of its land–more than 100 million acres–now faces an abnormal fire risk. Not all of this land will have to be treated. Some of it is remote and at higher elevations, where fire poses little hazard to the existing forest or to human settlement. However, it is becoming clear that a massive effort in thinning the National Forests to remove excess fuels will be necessary.

Most of the current forest fires are now occurring on National Forest lands. The National Forests pose the greatest fire risk because private timber lands have already been thinned and protected against fire for commercial reasons.

Based on its past performance, there are reasons to doubt whether the Forest Service will be up to the task of protecting the lands under its management. Already the agency is talking of a massive public expenditure of many hundreds of millions of dollars for thinning when commercial timber harvest concerns–including biomass production of electricity, pulp, and other innovative uses of low-quality trees–may be capable of doing the job at little or no public expense.

Roger Sedjo, head of the forestry program at Resources for the Future in Washington, DC, says it is time to “think the unthinkable.” He observes that “the Forest Service has been an unusually successful organization for much of its history. That is no longer the case.”

The summer of 2000 is likely to represent a turning point in public land and natural resource management. It is time to reconsider not only the Disneyland fantasies of “naturalness” in resource management, but also the very basic premise that the federal government is the best manager for the National Forests and other public lands of the United States.

Robert H. Nelson is a professor at the School of Public Affairs of the University of Maryland and senior fellow of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He is author of the recently published A Burning Issue: A Case for Abolishing the U.S. Forest Service (Rowman & Littlefield).