The West is Burning

and Humans, Animals and the Eco System Pays for the Green Folley

Were it not for the tragic proportions of the wildfires now sweeping the West, it might seem that Mother Nature has an impish sense of political incorrectness and a desire to give President Clinton prickly heat.

Even as his administration seeks to snuff out smoking and to reduce carbon dioxide emissions blamed for global warming, these blazes are spreading haze from Ashland, Ore., to Carbondale, Colo., and belching greenhouse gas like Rust Belt smokestacks.

But these continuing flames – which have already blackened more than 2 million acres and caused the deaths of many fire fighters this summer – illuminate more than the folly of voguish tobacco and climate initiatives. More importantly, they reveal flaws in trendy preservationism. Neither natural nor inevitable, the fires are products of cumulative mistakes that increase prospects for ecological and social disaster.

For nearly a century, national fire policy failed to take sufficient heed of two truths: that fires can only be postponed, not prevented, and that attempts to protect forests from change merely ensure their destruction.

As forests mature, trees die and dry out, and flammable detritus accumulates. This increases the risk of calamitous conflagrations. In pre-settlement times, Native Americans reversed this buildup, igniting woods to improve wildlife habitat, clear campsites, drive game and make openings for trails. But when Indians were evicted from their lands, combustible material proliferated and mammoth fires became commonplace. By 1900, they consumed from 20 to 50 million acres annually. In response, the federal government did exactly the wrong thing: inaugurate a policy of fire suppression. Reducing burns more than 90 percent, this “Smoky the Bear program dramatically added to fuel loads, creating conditions for bigger explosions.

This was not good. Although relatively cool “ground” fires regenerate vegetation and are indeed beneficial, super-hot “crown” burns not only kill people and destroy buildings, they also prevent regeneration by scorching organic matter in the topsoil and causing soil erosion.

A better strategy, therefore, would be “prescribed” burning. Rather than waiting for lightning to start fires in the dry seasons – when they might be impossible to control – foresters should mimic Indians and intentionally ignite small fires in the winter, spring and fall when they could be controlled.

Yet while ecologically right, this option is politically incorrect. Since much timberland is overdue for combustion, prescription burns could flare out of control unless foresters first bulldoze firebreaks through the woods and remove excessive debris by truck. But politics and law prohibit this option. Activists object to intrusions into nature; the Wilderness Act forbids using mechanical devices in sanctuaries, and few rangers will risk the controversies intentional burns inevitably generate.

Thus, fire suppression coupled with forest “preservation” has created conditions favoring fire unprecedented on this continent since the last ice age. The dangers were amply demonstrated in Yellowstone National Park in 1988, when lightning and human-caused blazes consumed a million acres, required more than 9,000 fighters to contain, burned for nearly two months, and menaced lives, historic buildings and several Montana towns. Flames scarred soil, producing mud slides and soil erosion. They killed so much white-bark pine -whose nuts are a principle food of the threatened grizzly bear – that later a conservation group, the Great Bear Foundation, suggested listing this tree as an endangered species.

But Yellowstone was just the beginning. Burns on the scale America witnessed a century ago will return, doing more damage. It is not accidental that the Pacific Northwest, where legal challenges have halted most logging in public forests, was hardest hit by recent flare-ups. Indeed, before being destroyed, many charred stands in Washington state had been designated critical habitat for the threatened Northern spotted owl. And as more land is set aside in sanctuaries, the probability of similar events increases. Even worse, towns and suburbs, spreading next to protected forests, have given birth to what experts call a “city-wildlands interface” that puts larger human populations at risk. Before the frenzy to save nature subsides, some major Western cities may be incinerated off the map.

Yet the Clinton administration is merrily making matters worse. By putting most remaining Northwest forests in preserves, to save owls and “ancient” trees, it will eventually destroy the very landscape it seeks to save. This is the Rice Crispies of ecological salvation – a seemingly sweet idea for making forests and towns go “snap, crackle and pop.

“You always hurt the one you love,” they say. So with faddish environmentalists like Clinton. As the president tans himself on Martha’s Vineyard this month, as he glows, swelters and sizzles in Eastern heat, he should keep an eye on hot vapors emanating from the West. They represent the real global warming.


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