- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 22, 2000

From the podium of the Democratic National Convention last week came repeated testimonies about the splendors of an activist government. But from a backyard picnic at a friend's house in this town at the base of the Rocky Mountains, it was possible to hold a somewhat different view insofar as one could have a view at all.
Across the entire horizon hung a heavy pall of smoke from the scores of major wildfires that so far have destroyed nearly a million acres of prime forest. As dusk faded into evening, a slight wind shift brought a gentle rain of ash from fires up to 100 miles away. Visibility dropped to almost zero; the lungs burned.
Fires are to be expected in this part of the country, of course. It has been a hot, dry summer here. But what is happening is not just part of some natural cycle. It is what might be called deferred fire huge conflagrations that might have taken the form of smaller, more manageable fires in earlier years had it not been for nearly a century of misguided government policies preventing fires altogether.
Those policies, in turn, were symptoms of a far deeper problem, as Robert H. Nelson, professor of environmental policy in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, writes in a provocative but persuasive new book, "A Burning Issue: A Case for Abolishing the U.S. Forest Service," (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers).
"If decisions for the forests of the West are made in Washington," he says, "most democratically elected representatives will be far removed from the places where their decisions take effect. They are likely to have little idea what policy issues, typically posed in abstract and symbolic terms at the national level, are likely to mean when translated into on-the-ground results in the West."
Just so. When the Forest Service was created in 1905, its guiding philosophy was "scientific management." America's national forests would be administered by a centralized cadre of professionals insulated from politics and trained in modern techniques of resource management. Their goal would be to balance conservation with recreational use and industrial logging.
Managing the forests meant managing fire, which soon came to mean preventing fire, whether natural or manmade. In the 1940s the Forest Service invented a cartoon character, Smokey Bear the Joe Camel of his day who could be found on roadside signs throughout the West admonishing Americans that "only you can prevent fire."
The result, however, was unnaturally thick forests and a tremendous buildup of dead and dying trees. Just as some Forest Service professionals began to draw the obvious conclusions, however, the new environmental ethic began to emerge. No longer was conservation enough. Preservation had become the new watchword. The aim would be to allow the American landscape to return to what was assumed to be its pre-European state before, that is, the rapacious white man had intruded on the New World's Garden of Eden. Never mind that Native Americans themselves had long used fire as a tool to clear land for crops, provide better access to game and entrap their enemies.
The Forest Service, despite its pretense of professionalism, responded as any bureaucracy will by bowing to yet another faddish notion. Quietly it conducted a few controlled burns to reduce tinder, but it refused outright to extract dead and diseased trees by logging, as professionals were recommending. Fear of the reaction from the powerful environmental lobby discouraged action. One result was the great Yellowstone fire of 1988, which consumed nearly 1.5 million acres of that national treasure. That was followed by sharp spikes in the incidence of fires in 1994 and 1996. Now the problem is becoming so overwhelming that the very idea of controlled burns is impractical as the first great fire of the year 2000, in New Mexico, vividly demonstrated. There, an attempt to conduct a controlled burn in a national monument area earlier this summer quickly spread to an adjacent national forest and nearly burned down the Los Alamos nuclear testing facility. The Interior Department, of course, blamed Park Service "mistakes" though it declined to discipline those who made the "mistakes."
Meanwhile, the amount of land under federal control continues to expand exponentially from 51 million acres in 1964 to nearly 300 million acres today. Mr. Nelson proposes decentralizing management of all but the most significant wilderness areas, about a fifth of the total, to local management under an appointed board of directors representing the stakeholders in the forests. Each forest would be required to raise its own money. Longer term, some of the land might be returned to state control or even turned over to private not-for-profit corporations. Such ideas will be met with stout resistance not least in the West itself. Westerners loudly grouse about federal "interference" even as they clamor for ever-larger subsidies from Washington.
But whatever the solution, what is going up in smoke this summer isn't just the American forest. It is the environmental myth that nature is something apart from man. It is also the old progressive notion that centralized control and "scientific management" bring better, more enlightened government. What they have brought is big, out-of-touch government and fire on a scale that not even Smokey Bear could have anticipated.

Tom Bray is a columnist for the Detroit News.

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