- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2000

When U.S. government officials set off a prescribed burn near Los Alamos, N.M., May 4, they knew they were taking a risk. Setting fire to brush and dry timber to eliminate "fuel" for some future catastrophic fire might itself lead to disaster. "Escapes from the burn area are somewhat likely," the National Park Service (NPS) plan said, "but fuel and terrain features should minimize fire growth outside the burn unit."(emphasis added)

Alas for several hundred people who used to live in Los Alamos and 47,000 acres worth of former trees, they didn't. High winds and dry conditions turned the burn into the biggest blaze in New Mexico history. It burned down more than 200 residences, did millions of dollars in damage to the Los Alamos National Laboratory and blackened (again) the federal government's reputation for environmental stewardship.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt blamed, of all things, the trees, for the fiasco. "These forests are too thick," he said. "They're explosive, they're dangerous and the reason is because fire has been excluded for 100 years and there's too much fuel in the forests, too many trees." But it is the job of the Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and other resource agencies to manage trees, fire fuel and more to reduce the risk of conflagrations like these. What have they been doing the last 100 years while the trees were busily reproducing? The short answer is, making things worse. And they will continue to do so if the Clinton administration gets its way.

Problems began, as Mr. Babbitt acknowledges, when the federal government decided to play Smoky Bear and make fire suppression one of its chief aims. Fires ignited by lightning had long been part of nature's landscape and periodically burned through forest understory while leaving larger trees generally undamaged. By putting out such fires, the feds left in place understory ladders that allowed flames to climb rung by rung, branch by branch into the larger trees, setting off bigger, hotter, more damaging blazes.

Now, having decided that fires are all right after all, they find so much more fuel on the ground that it is difficult to manage fires as casually as nature once did. Further, the new environmental mandates on forest managers make it difficult to resort to less risky fire-control measures. Timber harvests, for example, could help thin the tree stands, but government regulations restrict what loggers can do to harvest fire fuel, even to the point of blocking them from salvaging trees blown to the ground. Particularly in the West, one finds the incongruous situation in which sawmills are shutting down operations and trimming employees for lack of work even as national forests put on weight.

The result, as the Forest Service reports, is that it has 39 million acres at high risk of fire. The agency reported two years ago that there was a 30 percent chance of a large fire in five years in the woods around Los Alamos. The Department of Energy concluded last year that "a major fire moving up to the edge of Los Alamos National Laboratory is not only credible but likely."

A 1999 report from the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) helps put the feds' forestry-management problems in perspective. Once upon a time, the Forest Service used herbicides to kill undergrowth, then burned it. But critics warned the practice would harm water quality and human health, so the agency stopped it. Dense stands of Douglas fir that fuel fires are off-limits to man-made fires, loggers or anything else because they are considered habitat for the famed northern spotted owl. Indeed burning anything on the scale it would take to reduce the risk of wildfire is problematic. "[S]everal officials and experts we spoke with believe that emissions from controlled fires … would violate federal air quality standards under the Clean Air Act."

The Forest Service and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which administers the Clean Air Act, are now busily conducting experiments to see whether it is possible for either the National Park Service or Mother Nature to use fires, controlled or otherwise, in forest management without having to face sanctions from EPA. (Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that the Los Alamos fire released carbon monoxide equivalent to that of 540 million cars idling for one hour.) In the meantime, the administration is proposing to put millions of acres of government land in so-called "roadless" areas, which would make it that much more difficult for anyone trying to reduce fire risks there to do anything more than make sure there are adequate supplies of hot dogs and marshmallows on hand.

At least one question that comes to mind is why anyone would want to give the government any more fire-starter any more land to mismanage than it already has. Private landowners, including timber firms, seem to be able to manage their property without burning their neighbors out of their homes and livelihoods. But the U.S. House of Representatives recently approved legislation that would give the federal government billions of dollars each year to put more land under government management. The guess here is that the potential for fiasco on such property is somewhat likely.


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