The Magazine

The Forest Fires Next Time

The Clinton administration's ecosystem theories have reached a dead end

Feb 19, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 22 • By ROBERT H. NELSON
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AMONG HIS FLURRY of last minute actions, President Clinton issued an order January 5 closing off 58.5 million acres of the national forests to future road building, timber harvesting, and oil and gas leasing. To put this in perspective, it will increase the area of the national forests in a wilderness status by 165 percent, the total now reaching the size of California.


This step was promptly hailed by one environmental leader as "the biggest conservation achievement by any president in our memory." Perversely, though, the forest environment itself will be the biggest loser.


The widespread forest fires in the West last summer confirmed a decade of warnings from forest experts. By the Forest Service's own estimates, about 55 percent of its lands, covering more than 100 million acres, are in poor and declining health. More than half of the newly designated roadless forest areas are considered unhealthy.


The dismal current state of forest health is largely the result of past efforts to suppress forest fires. The national forests have far too many small trees, densely packed and susceptible to disease, and often severely fire prone. If fires had been allowed to burn in decades past, the forests would be healthier. But in their absence, many forests built up large volumes of "excess fuels" -- kindling for the devastating megafires that have become more and more common in recent years.


This grievous mid-century policy error cannot easily be undone. When the forests do eventually burn -- as they must some day, including in roadless areas -- there will be little that is "natural" about the outcome. Because they were delayed so long, many fires will burn with extreme intensity; some will become "crown" fires that destroy even the oldest and historically most fire resistant trees, and others will damage the forest soils.


We've already had a taste of what's to come. As former interior secretary Bruce Babbitt said of one Idaho fire, it "wiped out a population of bull trout. It vaporized soil elements critical to forest recovery; then when the rains come, floods and mudslides will pour down hardpan slopes, threatening lives and property a second time." And that's not to mention the heavy air pollution that hung over the West all last summer.


The forest fires of 2000 exposed the liabilities of government policies based on environmental illusions. Besides the widespread damage to the forest environment, the fires of 2000 burned around 1,000 homes and required government expenditures of well over $ 1 billion. Yet many environmentalists, including many who populated the Clinton administration, persist in crusading with quasi-religious zealotry for a federal policy of cleansing the environment of human -- i.e., "unnatural" -- influences. In reality, just the opposite, assertive human management, is necessary.


Throughout the 1990s, the Clinton administration declared a virtual war on almost any kind of productive use of the national forests. The levels of timber harvests from Forest Service lands plummeted from 12 billion board feet in 1989 to less than 3 billion in 1999. Oil and gas drilling, along with virtually any other kind of mineral exploration, was discouraged.


Putting land in a wilderness status acts to keep out many hunters, fishermen, skiers, and other ordinary recreational users as well. In Idaho, if the Clinton roadless designations hold up, the total wilderness area will now extend to 25 percent of the state. It will set aside this vast preserve for 20-year-old backpackers and other Americans in top physical shape.


The final Clinton actions were consistent with that administration's theory of "ecosystem management," which replaced the old federal policy of "multiple-use management." For the Clinton team, the objective was to achieve an ecological state of affairs in the national forests that went by the misleading name of "natural." In practice, natural meant forest conditions that prevailed in the West before the arrival of European settlement. Because of uncertainty about those conditions, the Forest Service is presently employing hordes of foresters, botanists, anthropologists, and other researchers to determine precisely the state to which we must "restore" the national forests.