Special Report

It’s Fire Season Again

In Boulder Canyon, people will burn too.

By 4.29.05

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We're in the seventh year of drought in the Northern Rockies, with precipitation deficits running about 20% annually. At the same time poor management of the regional national forests has left them brush-choked and bark beetle-ravaged and susceptible to wildfire. The Bush Administration's 2003 "Healthy Forests Initiative" is designed to prevent these conflagrations by streamlining the bureaucratic "analysis paralysis" when processing timber sales. But the scope of the problem is such that these conditions will remain for years to come. In this year, the centenary of the United States Forest Service, the woods are a wreck. How did our national forests get into this predicament?

For a century it's been the policy of the U.S. Forest Service -- simply put -- to fight forest fires. This seems like sound practice, but in the end it has disrupted the natural benefits of small fires -- usually caused by lightning strikes in remote areas -- that are useful to keep brush and ground fuel down. This constant fire suppression over a century has been detrimental to forest health.

Near my home in Cody, Wyoming, is the "Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway," running 52 miles from Cody to the East Entrance of Yellowstone National Park. The last twenty miles to the Park are beetle-infested and the dying trees are purple-tinged. Tourists remark on this, thinking the colorful woods are beautiful. In reality, there is nothing for these trees to do but burn, probably the result of one of those errant lightning strikes. It's not a case of "if," but "when."

Thanks to the recent Terri Schiavo case, we've been hearing much in the media about an "out-of-control" federal judiciary, a court system that seems to have usurped the legislative authority plainly spelled out in the U.S. Constitution. The American people (that minority actually paying attention) are appalled by this outrage. But here in the West we're not surprised. Here, environmentalists for the past thirty years have manipulated the courts and relied on activist liberal judges to obstruct the "multiple-use" models on the national forests, such as logging. Say what you want about logging, but for years commercial timber harvest provided firebreaks that checked the spread of wildfire.

In 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Environmentalists have since used that legislation as the 800-pound gorilla designed to obstruct the "multi-use" status of the public lands, and even to interfere with private property rights. The ESA gave us the 1990s "Spotted Owl" controversy in the Northwest, which itself is primarily responsible for a 75% decrease in the annual board-feet timber cut in the national forests (12 billion down to 3 billion) in the last fifteen years. The results, along with the previously noted fire suppression, are obvious.

Also relatively near my home is Boulder Canyon, about 100 miles away near Big Timber, Montana. It's 24 miles long and is accessed by a single narrow winding road. The canyon contains dozens of homes and vacation cabins, and on busy summer weekends as many as 3,000 people are present, using hiking trails, campgrounds, and two church camps. Gallatin National Forest officials in Montana believe it's only a matter of time before a major fire sweeps up the canyon. It is heavily timbered and bordered by the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.

The main concern is that single road, which is the escape route down-canyon in the event of a fire that could trap thousands of people. The Forest Service plan calls for the thinning of 2,500 acres of brush and small diameter trees at strategic points along the canyon. To do so would place breaks barring fire spread and ensuring the safer evacuation of homeowners and recreationists.

Most environmental groups in the region (along with local Sweet Grass and Park Counties government and property owners in the canyon) support the project. That hasn't stopped three Montana enviro-groups, namely the Missoula-based "Alliance for the Wild Rockies," the "Ecology Center" and the "Native Ecosystems Council" from filing a Forest Service appeal and temporarily halting it.

The Gallatin National Forest, after dotting all the "i's" and crossing all the "t's" in its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), seems to have included discrepancies in the project's effect on Northern Goshawks, raptors that frequent the canyon. "I think it's a paperwork correction," Brent Foster, a resource assistant for the Gallatin National Forest told the Bozeman Chronicle. "I don't think it's a big thing." The above illustrates a common strategy used by Greens to sabotage forest service timber sales, no matter their merit. The Northern Goshawk does not appear on either the "Endangered" or "Threatened" lists of the ESA, so this minor imbroglio will never even get to court. As for Boulder Canyon, Forest Service officials "hope to get some work done this year." We'll see.

In the last few years 51 wildland firefighters have lost their lives in the West. In 2002 alone, some 7 million acres burned. In 2003, a record 6,800 "structures" (mostly private homes) burned. And this summer big swaths of the public domain will go up in smoke.

Let's hope Boulder Canyon can last through one more hellish season.

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.