- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 26, 2003

This year, wildfires have already destroyed more than 400 buildings — most of them homes — and forced the evacuation of thousands of people. Indeed, at the present time, wildfires have forced the closure of Mesa Verde National Park and are threatening to decimate entire villages on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. Alarmingly, this is very early in the fire season.

Before the fire season is over, it is likely that several millions of acres of forests will burn, millions of dollars of valuable timber will be in ashes, billions of taxpayer dollars will be spent fighting fires, once living streams will be choked with ash, wildlife habitat will be lost for decades and people’s homes, businesses and vacation spots will go up in smoke. Even worse, wildfires will likely claim the lives of emergency personnel, including professional and volunteer firefighters, and property owners in affected regions.

This fire season represents the norm for the past decade. For instance, in 2000, more than 70,000 wildfires in 14 states charred upward of 6 million acres, and in 2002 wildfires burned across seven states, scorching more than 815 structures and costing more than $1.6 billion.

Wildfires, per se, are entirely natural, but the size, intensity and harm caused annually by the past decade’s forest fires are almost entirely of human origin. Federal mismanagement of our national forests is to blame for the annual toll that wildfires have wreaked upon the nation.

The U.S. Forest Service estimates that more than 190 million acres of public land are at risk of catastrophic fires. Fully 60 percent of national forest land is unhealthy and faces an abnormal fire hazard. Why? Too many trees and too much brush combined with bureaucratic regulations and lawsuits filed by environmental extremists have hampered the ability of professional foresters to manage the forests properly for the multiple goals of wildlife habitat, recreation and timber production.

For instance, timber harvests have plunged more than 75 percent from 12 billion board feet per year to less than 4 billion board feet per year. Road building has declined from 2,000 miles per year in the 1980s to less than 500 miles in the late 1990s. As a result, historically large ponderosa pines that grew in stands of 20-55 trees per acre now grow (and burn) in densities of 300-900 trees per acre. This has resulted in an increase in wildfires, from 25 per year in 1984 to more than 80 a year in recent years.

President Bush inherited this crisis from previous administrations, and his administration has not been slow to respond. Since Mr. Bush took office, he has put forward a number of bills and regulatory changes that would speed up logging in both overgrown areas and in forests with excessively high percentages of trees that are dead or dying from insect infestation or disease. Most recently, he proposed a “Healthy Forests” bill that would, on a test-case basis, allow selective logging followed by controlled burns on about 20 million acres of public forests that are the most at risk for catastrophic fires. To get the logging done before disaster occurs, this plan would waive some of the environmental inventory and paperwork requirements demanded by current law and limit the ability of environmental lobbyists to challenge forest-treatment plans. Though this plan does not go far enough, at least it’s a start.

Though a modified version of the president’s healthy forest plan has passed the House, it is stalled in the Senate. Some Democratic senators, beholden to environmental funders, want to use the bill against the president in the next election, arguing that he is putting timber interests before environmental protection. As homes burn and lives are destroyed, now is not the time for political posturing.

The fact is excessive fuel, and thus the fire hazard, can be reduced in three ways. The first is to use mechanical thinning of vegetation or logging. Second is to use small “controlled” burns, which, as the Los Alamos fires of 2000 taught us, are inherently risky unless there has been some mechanical pre-treatment. Failing to successfully choose one of these options leaves only the “burn baby burn” option that we are currently witnessing.

Our forests, those who fight fires and the public who use forests and pay the bills, deserve a forest policy that places public safety, environmental health, economic well-being and fiscal responsibility above the flawed ideal of “letting nature take its course” held by powerful environmental lobbyists. Their vision is a nightmare that has contributed to the current crisis.

H. Sterling Burnett is a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis.

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