- The Washington Times - Monday, August 28, 2000

President Clinton calls this fire season one of the worst this nation has ever witnessed, and he's right. Already some 5.6 million acres across the country have burned, and the number of persons who have died fighting the blazes has climbed to 14. The worst of it is that the fires are neither accidental nor unexpected.

Throughout the last decade, forestry experts have warned repeatedly that Western forests, many of them owned and managed by the federal government, were in danger of going up in smoke. A 1999 General Accounting Office study reported that "many acres of national forests in the interior West may remain at high risk of uncontrollable wildfire at the end of fiscal 2015." To say nothing of 2000.

It turns out that Mr. Clinton is himself partly to blame for the disaster. Eager to burnish his environmentalist legacy, the administration cut funds for federal firefighting efforts in favor of getting more land. The White House cut the Interior Department's request of $322 million for fire prevention to $305 million for this year. Meanwhile, it increased its budget request for land acquisitions from $15 million to $49 million. Administration priorities, Les Rosenkrance, former director of the National Interagency Fire Center, told this newspaper's Audrey Hudson, "are using the money for land acquisition and a lot of different things, like building a visitor center at a new monument." Just as bad, the administration has perpetuated and even aggravated existing government mismanagement of government wilderness areas. For decades, the feds maintained a "Smoky Bear" approach to wildfires, suppressing them whenever possible. But such blazes, once routine and quite natural following lightening strikes, had the happy effect of burning off forest understory and reducing the amount of "fuel" available to the next fire. When the government started putting out fires as quickly as possible, the unburned fuel piled higher and higher, waiting to turn fires into the conflagrations now burning up the West.

The Clinton administration therefore had two choices to manage the fire risk. It could rely on "prescribed" burns, man-made fires intended to do what nature had been prevented from doing. But as in the case of the devastating Los Alamos fire, even those fires can burn out of control at great cost to the environment, to say nothing of nuclear secrets at the Los Alamos lab or human life.

Alternatively, the administration could have relied on mechanical removal, or timber harvesting, to reduce the fuel levels. But this administration has an almost religious opposition to it. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said in February 1997 that "we need not sacrifice the integrity of God's creation at the altar of commercial timber production."

He and the administration would rather sacrifice it at the altar of environmentalism. If Mr. Clinton continues to reverence such gods, the West will continue to burn. The charred landscape will be his legacy and his country's.

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