Fire storm in the west

By Diane Alden
web posted June 19, 2000

When I was a kid the West was a mystical place to me. A land of cowboys and Indians, of mountains and roaring rivers, and sunsets seen from the back of a horse. Perhaps it was one too many Roy Rogers and John Wayne matinees at the Plaza theater. Maybe it was the love of history and horses and people who left the safe confines of the East Coast and went west for a thousand different reasons. Mostly the people who went west were seekers of one sort or another. Looking for gold or land or freedom or looking for nothing. Many merely wanted to get lost in the big country beyond the Mississippi and the Missouri. It is a land of possibilities and many call it "hope's last home." These are the last best places.

My first view of the Rocky Mountains and the Cascades came during a train trip on the Great Northern's Hiawatha vista dome. From Minneapolis to Seattle all by myself, a train trip which would stay with me for the rest of my life.

It was 1964 and I was very young and full of dreams. It began in the depot in Minneapolis. A group of Canadian bagpipers and drummers were on their way to a summer event and they were drunk. I remember their exuberance and lack of concern what people thought at the scurl of the pipes and the drummers beating tattoo and the dancers doing a fling. It was a grand start to my sojourn out West. Late at night I recall landscape flashing by in the moonlight, tender light shining on the tall grass prairie of Minnesota, corn and wheat and hayfields and the Dakotas that went on forever until at first light the train pulled into Dickinson, North Dakota. Grain elevators stood like tin candles on railroad sidings and in black flat prairie. Stark Midwestern houses, patchwork gardens in each back yard reminded me of my grandparents' place.

The small town business district and people were rising to a new day. When the train moved on I listened to sleeping passengers cough and snore.

Noiselessly, the conductor came down the aisle and noticed me looking out the window. He bent and whispered, "Out there," pointing towards the barren scrub land and square buttes, angled draws and gullies, "Teddy Roosevelt traveled this land. He was a cowboy but lost his shirt ranching. Best time of his life he said. Medora, down the line --- that's the town where he beat up a cowboy for calling him four eyes. Failed at ranching but I guess the experience must have done something for him. He went back home and did pretty well for himself."

The west I learned about came from Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers at the Saturday matinees. John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Clark Gable made it romantic and mysterious and somewhere I wanted to be. No --- it was more then that --- it was somewhere I wanted to believe in. The train trip revealed the reality.

It wasn't all majestic mountains or green hills dotted with trees and cattle and rushing wild rivers. In most places it was barren and brown, patched together by scrub and tumbleweed and earth the color of scoria, in some places --- gray. Trees, the few that were there, bent to the wind and the horizon always seemed far away. The sky tinged yellow and rust colored as though a giant housewife had shaken crumbs of land into the atmosphere and they had not yet settled.

I have traveled a great deal in the West. Sat in cafe's and listened as farmers and ranchers speaking about the business of ranching. I have been to Idaho and listened to desperate loggers realizing they are on the verge of the end of their way of life. I have spoken to small mining prospectors who more often than not are being run off their claims by environmentalists and government. What is replacing the old ways is a new regime based on the notion that the West in particular must be "preserved."

In particular this preservationist attitude has been a tragedy for the forests of the West. Preservationist policies are not saving the forests or the landscape they are helping to destroy it. Now some East Coast type would say when they see thick forest where the trees are so close together it is difficult to walk through, that this must be a very fine forest indeed. But the forests in government hands, the lands in government hands is in most cases the least healthy of any in the western region.

The fires in the West this year are only the beginning of devastation caused by poor management. The environmentalists think this is fine because fire is natural. But what they won't tell you is that the forest conditions in which these fires happen are not natural. Before the white came the American Indian set fires to ground cover to keep the land healthy and this was done consistently. But over the years a well meaning but eventual destructive "Smokey the Bear" philosophy led to a build up of scrub and debris on the forest floors which act like kindling. Now it is too late for fires to work alone. To use fire alone will only lead to total devastation and destruction.. But preservationist policies which has meant no more harvesting of trees on federal lands has led to saving something using the wrong strategy. Like trying to cure a diabetic by force feeding him candy -- short term solutions for a long term problem.

The Forest Service manages 47 million acres of forested lands mostly in the West that it now classifies as being very unhealthy It also managed another 59 million acres in a less severe condition but still in an unhealthy and often deteriorating state that will also frequently require policy attention and remedial actions. Prescribed burns are not enough to regain forest health and stop the wild fires from happening. Other options must be put in place or all the trophy homes going up in the intermountain West, not to mention the wild life and the forests will be destroyed. The environmental movement won't allow destruction of habitat of the spotted owl but it cares not that bad forest management practices steeped in the preservationist philosophy will lead to the destruction of the very habitat they are trying to save.

In testimony before the House subcommittee on Forest Health. Dr. Robert H. Nelson, a Professor of Environmental Policy at the School of Public Affairs of the University of Maryland and a Senior Fellow of the Competitive Enterprise Institute gave testimony along with many others on the poor conditions of federal forest lands.

Nelson maintains that burning is not enough to get rid of the excess fuels on forest floors, which lead to these catastrophic fires. Dr. Nelson suggests, "employ mechanical removal of excess fuels and other vegetation - At present, the federal land agencies are reluctant to employ mechanical methods of excess fuels removal on any widespread scale. They fear a negative public reaction to a perception of an expanded program of "timber harvesting." This stigma must be removed and the use of mechanical methods must become a routine part of planning for excess fuels treatments, given the impractical nature of prescribed burns in many forested areas and the increased public fears that are likely to result from the events at Los Alamos themselves."

Even the states do a better job of managing the forests with much greater accountability resulting in better forest health. Dr. Nelson went on to say, "On many state-owned "trust" lands, by contrast, the management is required by statute to serve the revenue and other needs of a specific trustee such as the public schools of the state. Studies by Sally Fairfax at the University of California at Berkeley and others have shown that state trust lands are often managed better than federal lands. The ecological condition is better and the future risk of forest fire is less - and the economic gains are also higher -- where the state land managers are freer to routinely and actively intervene to direct future management outcomes in pursuit of a clearer mission."

He concludes with, " in the face of dire warnings of looming catastrophic wildfire in the west -- shows that radical changes in the framework for federal land management are required. The ownership of 50 percent of the land in the West by the federal government may well be a legacy of the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that will prove inappropriate for the twenty-first century. It seems reasonable to expect that rapidly growing western states will take greater charge of their own destinies and the remaining dominance of the federal government in the ownership of rural land is a significant obstacle to this outcome. Federal land management today is not working over much of the West."

There was other testimony at the hearing. Especially startling was Chief of Operations at Los Alamos labs who basically said that the attempts made by local authorities at Los Alamos to mitigate the danger of forest fires were not considered in this particular burn. The feds don't ask permission nor do they even bother to warn the local communities when they are going to have a prescribed burn. Given the weather conditions the people at Los Alamos would have advised for the sake of the lab that the burn should be postponed until conditions were better.

Given the nature of the political climate with such experts as Al Gore stating he does not want federal forests to be logged nor for roads to be maintained in "wilderness" areas, the environment and the forests are in a world of hurt. The Luddite approach to life and to the environment has been winning out over common sense and sound science. Al Gore, the Sierra Club and their ilk are like the character of Lenny in John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men." He doesn't mean to do any harm but every where he goes harm is done -- with the best of intentions of course. Lenny kills the thing he loves the most and along with his blundering and stupidity he destroys the dreams of those around him.

I am not sure what will happen next given the plodding nature of congress and the intransigence and blind stupidity of the Clinton-Gore-Babbitt environmental policies. They are unwilling to face facts but rather succumb to propaganda and myths. Progressives these folks are not. Rather than learn from mistakes and science they prefer to wallow in old ways based on raw emotion and idealism grounded in nothing but "feelings" and junk science.

I suspect many more fires of the New Mexico magnitude and Al Gore and the environmental movement will be pushed aside in favor of saving life and property -- a fitting ending to one of the 20th century's biggest follies, environmentalism run amok.

The West is a place where dreams are lived out and it must be saved from those well meaning but ignorant folks who would destroy it.

Reach Diane at or visit her web site

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