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The West is burning. Again. Here's why

By Tom DeWeese
web posted August 20, 2001

Firefighters battle blazes in the West
Firefighters battle blazes in the West

The West is once again on fire as forests burn through millions of dollars of timber stock, much of which should have been harvested to thin out those forests and thus protect them from becoming the tinder that dying and diseased trees represent.

In 1999, then-President Clinton sought to set aside 40 million wilderness acres in some 35 states. He did this despite the fact the Senate had refused to ratify the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, which called for those set-asides. He did this despite the fact that Congress, not the Executive, is directed by the Constitution to manage federal lands. Under Clinton's plan, no wilderness roads would have been created. In addition, general public access to this vast area would be further restricted. This represents near perfect conditions for catastrophic forest fires.

Even before Clinton could work his mischief, however, the US Forest Service, long infiltrated by the true believers of environmentalism had set about creating the conditions that made headlines last year and are making them again as fires consume forests throughout the West.

"The reasons for the poorer current ecological condition and higher fire risks of federal lands are multiple. The Forest Service, true to its longstanding Smokey the Bear mission, pursued fire suppression on its lands with particular zeal for many decades, often leaving the lands in worse condition to begin with, as compared with nonfederal forest owners." This is what Prof. Robert H. Nelson told a joint hearing of the House Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, along with the House subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands on June 7, 2000.

Nelson is a Professor of Environmental Policy at the School of Public Affairs of the University of Maryland. He is also a Senior Fellow of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. From 1975 to 1993, he worked in the Office of Policy Analysis in the U.S. Department of the Interior. He is also the author of "A Burning Issue: A Case for Abolishing the U.S. Forest Service." This is no wild-eyed member of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy. This is a man who knows what he is talking about.

Under the Clinton-Gore administration and earlier, as environmentalists were able to take over the Interior Department, longstanding policies of forest management were rejected in favor of doing nothing.

Prof. Nelson told Congress, "The state of federal land gridlock also reflects a growing uncertainty about the mission of the federal lands. For many decades these lands were managed according to a 'multiple use' philosophy that reflected a clear utilitarian goal to maximize human benefits from the multiple-use federal lands in the forms of recreation, timber harvesting, water supplies, grazing and other uses." That bears repeating, the longstanding policy, established by Congress when it began to set aside land as National Forests and Parks, was to also insure that their assets, chiefly timber, would also be available for use.

Until the new administration of George W. Bush took over, this nation's federal forests were not being managed for the benefit of the citizens of this nation. The priority had shifted entirely to the benefit of wildlife species. As a result, since the early 1990s, leading forestry experts have been warning that very dangerous fire conditions were building up on the forests of the interior West; conditions that put lives and property at severe risk.

Four young firefighters recently died as bureaucrats argued whether it was okay to take water from a lake with "endangered" fish and use it to protect them from the oncoming flames. This reflects the fundamental environmental viewpoint that trees and wildlife take precedence of human lives, property, and needs.

This explains why former Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt's first public reaction to last year's New Mexico fire was to blame it on the people who lived in the path of the blaze. When he discovered that the public takes a dim view of the government burning down hundreds of homes, he quickly reversed himself.

A Bush appointee, Gale Norton, now leads the Department of the Interior. Word of a new, ten-year, $1.8 billion plan to save the nation's forests from more catastrophic fires has just surfaced. Last year, throughout the West eight million acres were lost. The West is on fire again. Good forest management practices, long ignored, are desperately needed and, maybe, now finally they will be instituted. ESR

Tom DeWeese is the publisher/editor of The DeWeese Report, a monthly newsletter, and president of the American Policy Center, a grassroots, activist think-tank. Headquartered in Warrenton, VA, the Center maintains an Internet site at © Tom DeWeese, 2001

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