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The Fires this Time

  • Roger Sedjo
  • Summer is approaching, and wildfires are already raging through parts of New Mexico, Colorado, and Georgia. Yes, there is drought again this year, but it is increasingly clear that the U.S. Forest Service is in a poor position to act decisively. It can throw more money at fire suppression, but this only postpones the inevitable fire crises. The fires will return. They are tragic, but they are just a symptom. The federal agency must regain its ability to manage its land.

    The Forest Service is an agency without a mission. Thus, it moves with the current fashion, and currently the politically correct fashion is the preservation of biodiversity, to use a phrase of former Forest Service chief Jack Ward Thomas.

    The Forest Service was created because of a misunderstanding at the end of the 19th century. Logging companies were cutting a wide swathe across the upper Midwest, and many people anticipated a timber famine. Theodore Roosevelt, among others, expected that an uncontrolled private market would wipe out the nation’s timber. The federal government created forest preserves to provide a continuous supply of timber. Yet the timber famine never arrived.

    The private sector turned out to be decent managers. Today, the United States is the world’s largest producer of commercial wood, accounting for over one-quarter of the world’s total output. Less than five percent of this timber comes from federally owned forests.

    So the original purpose of the Forest Service has disappeared. Timber harvests from national forests have fallen by about 85 percent since the 1980s, from over 12 billion board feet to less than 2 billion. To many this is a waste as well as a hardship on communities dependent on timber production. Perhaps most important, it contradicts good management. Mature, crowded, and insect-infested trees burn, and they burn hot and fast.

    How did this happen? In its early years, the Forest Service at least had a clear mandate: to produce timber, protect water, and make sure that the forests were maintained. Ironically, one of its great successes was in curtailing destructive forest fires, which peaked around 1930. In 1952, a Newsweek story praised the agency in glowing terms, featuring Smokey the Bear on the cover. The agency managed to satisfy the interest groups that paid attention to it–the timber industry, the nascent environmental movement, hunters, and people living near the forests. Most decisions were made locally.

    During the 1970s and 1980s, however, large environmental groups gained power. They pushed for more preservation and more old-growth forest. They succeeded in “nationalizing” public forest issues. Voters in New England proved to be passionate, and influential, about the environment in Montana.

    The battle over the northern spotted owl, a small bird listed under the Endangered Species Act and residing in the old-growth forest of the Pacific Northwest, epitomized the conflict. When the dust cleared, an estimated 17 million acres of forest, a large portion of it old-growth, had been removed from the national forests’ timber base. The national environmental groups had won.

    This was a pyrrhic victory, however. Such decisions–including the subsequent set-aside of 60 million acres by the Clinton administration–have created a tinderbox throughout the national forests. Although environmentalists point out the benefits of small fires in reducing fuel loads, 70 years of fire suppression have created conditions ripe for large catastrophic fires. In these cases, creating healthy, resilient forests is more safely done by careful timber management than by uncontrolled fire.

    Today, the Forest Service faces several choices. One is to return to the multiple-use objectives of the past–getting back into the timber business while supporting recreation and some preservation. This seems unlikely.

    Environmental groups push for a different alternative, custodial management–a “hands off” approach. Yet this policy threatens even more fire.

    Active ecosystem maintenance and restoration is another option, but there is no consensus on what ecosystems the forests should be restored to Pre-Columbian forests? This would be very costly, probably impossible, and there is no compelling logic for electing any particular period in history.

    Another choice is to begin to return management to local control. The Forest Service would allow the people in each forest region to influence forest planning to respond to local conditions. The Quincy Library Group, a coalition in northern California, has tried this approach, attempting to inject more local input into management plans. They haven’t gotten very far. All such approaches face a hard time because of bitter opposition by self-interested national environmental groups. But unless the Forest Service moves forward in some direction, it, too, like its timber base, might well go up in flames.

    Roger Sedjo is a Senior Fellow at Resources for the Future, a Washington, D.C., research organization that studies natural resources. In 2000, he served as a Julian Simon Fellow with PERC.

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