Western Forests Burn; Millions of Acres Destroyed: Government Policies Blamed for…

Western Forests Burn; Millions of Acres Destroyed: Government Policies Blamed for Destruction

By: Staff  Date: 01/13/2012 Category: | Wildlife Journal |

Wildfires tore through the American West this summer and fall, making 2000 the worst season for fires in recent memory. The devastation was not unpredicted or unexpected; the fire fuel load in the forests was inordinately high and federal government agencies were ill-prepared to prevent or fight the resulting blazes.

Two of the fires were set by the US Park Service, one near Los Alamos, New Mexico, and one north of the Grand Canyon. The Los Alamos fired burned out of control for several days in May, destroying 235 homes and more than 45,000 acres in the Santa Fe National Forest and adjacent private lands.1

The prescribed burn near Los Alamos was set to prevent the very catastrophe it ignited. A subsequent report2 found that government officials failed to follow guidelines for implementing prescribed burns, failure that led directly to the conflagration.

The Santa Fe National Forest fire was the beginning of a long season that saw nearly seven million acres destroyed as a combination of weather conditions and government policies coincided to provide an excess of fuel and a shortage of firefighters and equipment. Writing in Environment & Climate News, Robert Nelson said: "The federal government is likely to spend $1 billion for fire fighting ... and that cost does not reflect the major environmental damage to the forests themselves, air pollution in western cities, and lost tourism business."3



Wild fires are natural phenomena that help thin forests and provide for renewed growth. Wildfires are started by lightening, by carelessness, by accident, and on purpose. The federal government has influenced the fuel build-up that feeds the hottest and most damaging fires through road-building policies, the Smokey the Bear campaign to prevent forest fires, and logging restrictions.

In the 1930s, the government promoted road-building in the forests to provide jobs, and the roads served the lumber industry in the post-World War II building boom. Logging helped reduce the fuel load, and logging roads made it easier for firefighters to reach any burns that occurred. By the late 1950s, annual loss to forest fires was less than five million acres.4 The recent increase in lost acreage is accredited to a reversal of the government road-building and road repair projects, changes directly attributed to the anti-logging campaigns of environmental and animal rights organizations.

Besieged by environmental and animal rights organizations, many politicians "vote green" to rack up points with the voters. As a result, Congress often leans towards regulatory programs that appease these groups. In addition, the current administration favors the arguments of activists over the application of science when man and the environment clash. As a result, campaigns to protect the spotted owl and old growth forest, halt roadbuilding, and abandon existing roads have dramatically reduced logging on public lands and left a legacy of dry, dead brush and trees to burn. Some observers estimate that nearly 40 million acres of government-owned forest and parkland is at risk, especially in years when weather phenomena guarantee changes in rainfall patterns.

Doug Leisz, a former regional forester and deputy chief of the US Forest Service, sent a tough letter5 to President Clinton to outline his concerns. Leisz said that, under the Administrations "reinventing government" plan,

  1. field organizations of the Forest Service have been decimated;
  2. fire fighting capabilities have been reduced to dangerously low levels;
  3. forces for protection of individual forests is at 50 percent of 1995 strength;
  4. fire prevention personnel and initial fire attack forces are "at the lowest level I can recall"; and
  5. the staff at the Washington office of the Forest Service has been increased by 300 people who don't fight fire.

Leisz also cited curtailment of logging as a major contributor to the fuel load in the forests.

"Forests are dynamic," Leisz wrote. "They continue to produce new biomass each year, are subject to wind and snow breakage and losses from insect infestations and disease. These fuels continue to accumulate and build, just waiting to oxidize. A fire, in the dry, hot period we are now experiencing, lets this fuel carry fire up into the tree tops, resulting in crown fires incinerating large and small trees alike."

Leisz continued: "The loss of resources associated with catastrophic fires is enormous. Precious old-growth is destroyed, public recreation opportunities eliminated for many years, fish and wildlife habitat severely damaged, flood damage likely, and enough wood destroyed to build hundreds of thousands of homes for people who own part of this forest legacy but can't afford their own home."

Bruce Vincent, Montana native and president of Alliance for America, fought the fires near his home near the Kootenai National Forest. He summed up the fire season this way:6 "Along with the trees, the soils in the forest are being incinerated and, come the rains of fall, we will get to watch blackened ash slide off the mountains and run into our streams. ... In many places, it will take eons to restore the forest that we are sacrificing to the altar of fire.

"Habitat for grizzly bears, elk, moose, lynx, bull trout, and humans is being torched. ... While I write this, I have family and friends in the mountains fighting to keep at bay these catastrophic fires; family and friends living in shelters because of evacuations; and family and friends choking down the soot of modern forest management at its absolute worst. We are not allowed to thin the forest, but we are called on to fight the flames."



1, 2. Bandelier National Monument Cerro Grande Prescribed Fire Investigation Report delivered to the Secretary of Interior, Bruce Babbitt on May 18, 2000. Guidelines included evaluation of conditions adjacent to the burn area; a plan for suppressing the fire; checking the three-to-five day wind forecast; implementation of safety procedures to protect firefighters and the public; and review of the plan before implementation.
3. Environment & Climate News, November 2000: "Forest fires scorch seven million acres" by Robert H. Nelson, professor at the School of Public Affairs of the University of Maryland and senior fellow of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He wrote A Burning Issue: A Case for Abolishing the US Forest Service.
4. Environment & Climate News, October 2000: "Wildfires threaten homes and children" by Tom Randall.
5. Letter from consulting forester Douglas R. Leisz, a 32-year-career employee with the US Forest Service. Leisz's career include time in the field and as a regional forester and deputy and associate chief. The letter is dated August 24,2000.
6. Environment & Climate News, November 2000: "On the fire line" by Bruce Vincent.

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