- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 29, 2000


On what should be one of Montana's glorious summer days capped with a brilliant blue sky, I sit in my office peering out at the brown haze that fills the valley, turning the sun a fiery red and cloaking the mountains in billowing smoke. At home, gray ash covers our wading pool and at day care, my child's teacher is wearing a surgical mask. Bozeman, like many towns throughout Montana and across the West, is under siege this summer as the forests burn down around us.

Naturally being an election year, the spin masters have turned this disaster into another opportunity to win political points by laying the blame on the Clinton administration. Yet these catastrophic fires that have so far devoured more than 5 million acres took more than eight years to kindle. Nearly a century of federal land management or mismanagement combined with a severe drought are the true culprits.

Despite the fact that it was widely known even in the 1920s that many forest types are fire-dependent, the agency suppressed fire across the landscape. Today, many of our forests are 10 times denser than they were 100 years ago. The recent trend toward reducing timber harvest, deindustrializing the forests and setting more lands aside has only exacerbated forest density and fire dangers. And it is here that the Clintonites can be justly held responsible.

By its own accounting, the Forest Service now has 40 million acres at high risk of wildfire, 6 million acres of dead and dying trees due to insects and disease, and another 18 million acres where periodic fire should be a normal part of the process, that are in dire need of treatment.

The devastation continues to mount as the fire season rages on. Wildlife has been destroyed or driven off the land, fish populations have suffocated in muddy torrents, vegetation has been scorched off the earth and biodiversity has gone up in smoke.

Residents of the West have lost homes, businesses, recreational opportunities and the irreplaceable scenic value of their land. All the while, taxpayers are paying fire-fighting costs exceeding $11 million a day with no end in sight.

Like a bad dream that you can't shake, the aftermath of the fires can be as bad as the fires themselves and longer lasting. Bare, burned soils can erode in the fall rains. Sediments can clog streams and muddy reservoirs, destroying fish populations and damaging drinking water for large populations.

What our national forests need now is a hands-on approach to management, not a laid-back, let-nature-take-its-course approach. This is where the current administration has failed and where the next administration must take a stand.

A hands-on-approach to forest management is irrefutably responsible for saving portions of the Wenatchee National Forest in Washington, the Boise National Forest in Idaho; the Kaibab National Forest in Arizona. In the Wenatchee, managers removed many of the smaller trees and much of the dead-fall from the ground. When the Tyree fire swept through the area in 1994, this section of forest lacked the heavy fuels to feed the fire and thus reduced the intensity of the burn. Today, a green strip of living trees in the treated area is surrounded by the dead and blackened remains of the wildfire.

Other forest remnants tell a similar tale. The 1994 Star Gulch fire on the Boise National Forest burned 30,000 acres but spared a site previously thinned with mechanical harvest and prescribed burn. This June, a fire that swept through the Kaibab National Forest spared a pilot site that had been thinned to about 10 percent of its former density. But such treatments are adamantly fought by environmental groups that successfully sued to reduce similar pilot sites near Flagstaff, Ariz., from thousands of treated acres to just a few hundred.

Without question the Forest Service has for many years protected commodity values over ecological values. Production goals were largely dictated from Washington and Congress rewarded the agency with funding when timber targets were met. Foresters refusing to achieve timber quotas were often transferred to desk jobs.

Now, the pendulum has swung from commodity interests to environmental ones. The names have changed from multiple use (read: timber harvest) to ecosystem management, but the politics have not. We have moved from too much timber harvest to the more politically correct too little timber harvest.

Reforming the Forest Service is the only way we are going to save our National Forests. To begin with, forest managers must be freed from political obligations, given clearly defined goals, provided incentives to manage for ecological health and held accountable for their costs and benefits.

Shy of such reform there is no reason to believe that our national forests will be managed any better under "ecosystem" management than they have for the past century.

Holly Lippke Fretwell is a research associate specializing in public lands at the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman, Mont. She is author of "Public Lands II, Forests: Do We Get What We Pay For?"

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