- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

Since June 20, roughly 2,000 lightning-sparked wildfires in Northern California have consumed some 900,000 acres of forests, woodlands and brush, destroyed more than 240 homes and other structures, and caused thousands of evacuations. More than 22,000 federal and state firefighters, together with 2,000 California National Guardsman and 2,500 state prison inmates, battled the blazes. The estimated firefighting costs alone exceed $320 million.

And now a major fire is threatening one of our nation’s treasures - Yosemite National Park.

In order to understand how we became so vulnerable to such devastating wildfires, it is helpful to exam the government’s historical approach to managing federal forest lands, including the fighting of wildfires.

In 1910, after a thousand wildfires came together and consumed 3 million acres of national forests in Montana, Congress declared war on wildfires as the enemy destroying the nation’s forests. For the next 80 years Congress funded and encouraged the suppression of every wildfire as aggressively as possible. Firefighting became a culture of warriors; specialized firefighting crews became “hot shots” and “smokejumpers.”

In the 1950s, federal and state forestry agencies began deploying aircraft to drop chemical fire retardants on fires, while on the ground bulldozers performed critical fire suppression functions during and in advance of wildfires.

As a result of this aggressive firefighting approach, annual national forest acreage destroyed by wildfires diminished from 40 to 50 million acres in the early 1930s to about 5 million acres in the 1970s. Between 1994 and 2001, an average of 10,000 wildfires per year were fought in national forests.

However, with the emergence of the environmentalist movement in the 1960s and its growing public influence over the next three decades, both presidential administrations and Congress came to view management of the national forests differently. Commercial logging replaced wildfires as the primary enemy of the nation’s forests.

During the Clinton-Gore administration, forest management practices underwent an even more drastic change. In 1994, at the behest of environmentalist organizations claiming to protect the forest habitat of the northern spotted owl, a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act, 25 million acres (39,000 square miles) of federal forests in Oregon and Northern California were put off limits to commercial timber harvesting.

As a result, on federal lands more than 85 percent fewer trees were harvested in 2007 than in 1990, causing these forests to be that much more overcrowded. (Ironically, a few years after the 25 million acres were set aside for northern spotted owl habitat, it came to light that a predator owl, not the lack of old-growth trees, was causing the northern spotted owl’s drastic decline.)

In further response to the environmentalist lobby, the Clinton administration greatly expanded “wilderness areas,” where humans were unwelcome, and closed hundreds of miles of national forest roads long used by firefighters to reach isolated wildfires. Salvage timber sales - where timber companies are allowed to sell for profit fire-killed trees (and future fire-starting fuel) in return for cutting and removing them from the forest - were terminated. As timber companies closed due to the prohibition on logging, thousands of timber families who historically had taken care of the forests as their homes left to find other work.

And as a result of minimizing the mechanical thinning approach to forest management, the national forests became overgrown with underbrush and over-fueled with dead or dying trees. They also became less accessible to firefighting crews. And even the prescribed burns - the only type of “clearing” endorsed by the environmental lobby - became too risky because the high tree density makes fires too hot and uncontrollable. The General Accounting Office in 1999 warned that the accumulation of this highly combustible fuel on the forest floor would lead to more forest acreage lost to wildfires, but the environmental lobby responded that forest fires are natural and should be allowed to burn without human intervention.

As predicted, wildfires took a remarkable jump. For example, in 2000, 8.4 million forest acres burned; in 2002, 6.9 million acres were destroyed, as were 800 homes, and the lives of 23 firefighters; and in 2003, in the devastating fires in Southern California alone, 750,000 acres were reduced to ashes, as were 3,500 homes, with 22 civilian lives lost.

The environmentalists’ human-hands-off approach to forest management is the most bizarre aspect of a movement filled with contradictions. Professing to care about protection of the forests and the species, while simultaneously opposing the suppression of fires that destroy both the forests and the species - not to mention human deaths - is difficult to comprehend from a commonsense or scientific perspective. Although the bipartisan-supported Healthy Forest legislation changed Mr. Clinton’s ill-advised forest management approach, incessant lawsuits by litigious environmentalist organizations’ have stymied much of its effect.

So long as the politically influential environmentalist organizations dictate the nation’s forest management policy, the losses caused by wildfires - and the escalating costs of fighting them - will only increase.

Pacific Legal Foundation (www.pacificlegal.org), a nationwide public interest legal organization working in the courts to defend private property and environmental balance. He is author of the new book “Green Gone Wild - Elevating Nature Above Human Rights” Click here for the Web site. www.greengonewildbook.com).

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