In 1977 I was a college student in Northern California and had a summer job working for the Plumas National Forest. I was part of a crew that cleaned campgrounds, performed trail maintenance, and built a long rail fence among other tasks. Once, during a nearby forest fire we were put on “mop up,” which is a relief stage giving overworked firefighters a break when the fire is contained. Throwing shovelfuls of dirt on little “hot spots” in a charred, eye-stinging smoky forest was the closest I ever came to being a wildland firefighter.
Nevertheless, I had a number of friends on the local “Hot Shot” crew, many sometime students like myself, but all highly trained and well paid professionals, whom I envied for their adventures flying around the West all summer battling blazes. The Plumas Hot Shots were an elite bunch who easily came up with their tuition in the fall, or took long off-season winter vacations in Mexico.
The difference between a 1977 Hot Shot and one today is that though the former had training in fighting and defending against “structure” fires, it was a skill rarely used. Even on the national forests of populous California, those '70s era Hot Shots rarely encountered anything more than a remote ranch, Boy Scout Camp or Forest Service campground, and spent most of their time fighting fires in uninhabited wilderness terrain.
A quarter century later, the 2002 Hot Shot might use those skills on every fire. In 1977, the “Wildland-Urban Interface” was almost nonexistent; today it’s ubiquitous. Ten times as many people live in fire prone areas of the West as 25 years ago. One million live in the so-called “red zone” in Colorado alone, most of them in the Denver Front Range megalopolis that through the '90s has sprawled westward from a north-south line from Fort Collins down to Colorado Springs. Near my home in Cody, Wyoming, subdivision development in the North and South Fork drainages of the Shoshone River border national forest and other public land. The problem is even more pronounced in the Bozeman and Livingston areas in nearby Montana.
The recent Hayman and Missionary Ridge Fires in Colorado, and the Rodeo-Chediski Fire in Arizona consumed 700,000 acres in toto, and burned 650 homes. Three million acres have already burned in the West in 2002, a rate set to break records (the notorious 2000 season scorched 8.4 million acres before it was done). So far roughly 1,650 “structures” have been lost (already almost twice the 2000 figure of 852). The Hayman Fire alone incurred $80 million in insurance claims, and cost the taxpayers $28 million to fight. The Missionary Ridge Fire weighed in at $40 million in containment costs. Forty thousand people have been at least temporarily evacuated from their homes across the region this summer.
Much has been made in the media of the poor condition of America’s national forests due to a century of “fire suppression,” the immediate extinguishing of a forest fire even if its natural properties are beneficial to forest health. But what’s not acknowledged is the role environmentalists have played in these catastrophic fires. The media parrot the outrageous enviro line that old commercial logging practices such as clearcuts are an integral part of the problem. Not to mention the enviro-shibboleth that all “fire is good,” an always natural and expected “process” benefiting the health of a forest. But there are a few peeps of dissent popping up in the conservative press (the Editorial Page of the Wall Street Journal, for instance), and from western lawmakers. Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope calls the increasing ganging-up on enviro groups a “disturbing display of cynical politics.” But what role have Greens played in this latest firestorm summer in the West?
Commercial logging on the public lands has always been the bogey man for Greens. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) devotes 40% of its annual budget to contesting enviro litigation, mostly designed to halt timber harvest and related road building. Having past allies in the Clinton Administration such as ex-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and ex-Forest Service Director Mike Dombeck has enabled environmentalists to lower the annual timber harvest from 12 billion board feet to 3 billion today, a 75% decrease in a decade. This in their endless quest to remove the capitalist component from the management of the public domain. Good timber harvesting practices are the most important factors in competent forest management, one has only to look to the private sector to see that. The vast and healthy holdings of International Paper, Sierra Pacific Industries and other timber firms bear this out. But logging on the public lands is increasingly rare, and that has made for an economic sea-change for the worst in the rural West, as it accommodates itself to a service economy catering mainly to tourists and wealthy newcomers.
Logging is rare because of what current Forest Service Director Dale Bosworth calls “Analysis Paralysis.” Public lands federal agencies have become sensitive to the nuances of an almost exclusively judicially-driven management process. Bidded timber sales, salvage sales, thinning projects, proposed controlled burns, recreational use, wildlife concerns, and especially road building — are all potential targets for environmental litigation. On any given day public lands agencies (USFS, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, National Park Service, et al.) collectively face an average of 5,000 cases pending in American courts. This will continue as long as current tort laws do not require enviro groups to pay court costs when they lose. Greens abuse the legal system with frivolous, costly and time-consuming litigation that is on a par with incarcerated felons, who have nothing better to do than to sit in prison cells all day filing lawsuits.
In the past two years the USFS has proposed a total of 326 badly needed thinning or controlled burn projects across the West. Of these, 155 were delayed by enviro legal appeals. In the Northern Rockies, all 53 proposed projects were appealed. For instance, according to the Denver Post, the Hayman Fire burned through a large area that had been slated for thinning, but was held up by an appeal. “These numbers are a scathing indictment of the process that governs management of the nation’s forests, and a harsh reminder of just how relentlessly ideological some environmental litigants have become,” said Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Col.) in a statement.
Not only are McInnis’s constituents effected by this, but scenic canyons and river drainages throughout the West are facing similar dilemmas. In Montana, the well-populated Gallatin Canyon corridor between Bozeman and Big Sky will eventually burn if not thinned. The same can be said for the western half of the North Fork of the Shoshone River National Scenic Byway in the Shoshone National Forest, fifty miles of guest ranches and summer homes between Cody, Wyoming, and the East Entrance to Yellowstone National Park.
Another reason why these areas are in such poor shape (and one, not surprisingly, absent from the media radar screen) is the presence of insect infestations that kill trees, leaving them nothing but dead tinder awaiting the next forest fire. Bark beetles and spruce budworm target drought-stressed trees in these overgrown areas, leaving behind telltale swaths of rusty-brown conifers on otherwise green mountainsides. These parasites move easily from tree to tree, taking advantage of crowded stands of timber caused by the prohibitions on commercial logging. After extended periods of drought such as we see in the West now, the sap-producing “immune systems” of trees are weakened and unable to resist the insect assault. Seventy three million acres on the national forests (out of 192 million acres under the purview of the USFS) currently suffer these infestations. To use one national forest as a microcosm of the problem, Brent Larson of the aforementioned Shoshone National Forest tells us that an estimated 50,000 Douglas Fir trees along the Cody to Yellowstone National Scenic Byway are dead, making for a rather unscenic tourist experience. Not that the Forest Service — as we have seen — isn’t trying to deal with the problem.
Congress recently authorized a $700 million quick fix of additional aid to fight this summer’s horrendous fires. The total bill at season’s end will be in the billions — taxpayer largesse that could have been put to better use if the national forests were in better shape. One wonders what an urban American public — which mostly views the West’s annual conflagrations in an abstract way — thinks of that.
Most of that American public considers cities like Denver and Phoenix to be remote urban outposts in “flyover country.” And 1,600 scorched homes is just a statistic, even as many as 467 in one place is just a number. But what would 467 burning homes in the suburbs of Washington or New York be called? Probably “terrorism.” And as new fires are reported everyday (as of July 21, forty-three major blazes rage in seven western states; fifteen burn in Oregon alone), the West continues to suffer its annual round of environmental terrorism. From the point of view of some westerners, the Sierra Club and its friends can be likened to al Qaeda.
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