MATTOLE VALLEY, CALIFORNIA -- "Fight every battle as if it were Armageddon, for if you don't, the next one will be." That was the advice, now legendary, imparted forty or more years ago to environmentalists by David Brower, long-time leader of the Sierra Club and later founder of Friends of the Earth.
Spoken or unspoken, that dictum drives nearly every legal maneuver and public relations tactic of the arch-environmentalists today. Its most recent manifestation is the intense fight they are waging against efforts to cull underbrush, scrub trees and dead or dying large trees from national forests to reduce forest fire danger.
Three things are implicit in that Armageddon battle cry: (1) The environmentalists are motivated by high moral purpose; (2) The motives of the other side are base; and (3) There is no room for compromise.
The latest example of the third point involves a Federal District Court ruling ordering the National Forest Service to withdraw a plan to log timber burned in a 1999 fire in Six Rivers National Forest in northwestern California. The plan involved removing the dead trees from a 1,050-acre area, creating fuel breaks in the event of future fires. An environmental group sued to stop the plan, citing the National Environmental Policy Act. This is analogous to using the Endangered Species Act to halt development. When high moral pronouncements are stripped away, the underlying purpose of the former act seems to be to halt logging of any kind anywhere.
President Bush was in Oregon late last week, surveying the largest forest fire in the state's history. This summer's wildfires in several western states have consumed more than six million acres of timber, about twice the annual average. Fire fighting costs this year will be approximately $1.5 billion.
Bush announced a plan to reduce the danger of future forest fires. In Oregon he said, "We need to make our forests healthy by using some common sense. We need to understand (that when) you let kindling build up and there's a lightning strike, you're going to get yourself a big fire." The new plan would allow government agencies to enter into contracts giving companies that clear brush and thin forests the right to sell wood products they harvest.
While he was in Oregon, Bush endorsed a compromise forest management plan worked out by the Clinton administration in 1994. It called for a reduction of timber sales on federal lands in Oregon, Washington and California from five billion to 1.1 billion board feet a year and it set aside 7.4 million acres as old-growth reserves and for endangered species preservation. Timber sales are less than 40 percent of the amount envisioned, however, thanks to government red tape and litigation by environmentalist groups. Bush's plan calls for streamlining the permitting process, something the arch-environmentalists fear because they have convinced themselves that anyone who wants to cut down one diseased tree really wants to clear the entire forest for parking lots and condominiums.
Lost in the environmentalists' relentless drive to stamp out all timber harvesting in national forests is the fact that when the system was created it was to be -- unlike national parks -- mixed-use land. That is, timber harvesting, grazing, mining and recreation were to share the lands.
The 1994 Clinton plan, with Bush's modifications, won't provide 100 percent satisfaction to all parties, but compromises never do. Bush assumes, of course, that each party to the controversy will come to the table willing to give in order to get. If he is right, sensible compromise -- and fewer forest fires -- will be the result. It is going to be hard to bring off, however, if one of the parties thinks the bargaining table is the battlefield of Armageddon.