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.

Yet, ecosystem management is still more a slogan than a well developed management regime. One problem on the level of theory is that it effectively requires reading Native Americans out of the human race. As leading fire historian Stephen Pyne keeps reminding us, American Indians shaped western forests for thousands of years by the deliberate setting of fires. If "natural" is to be defined in terms of forest conditions preceding any human -- including Indian -- influences, no one could say what these conditions might be.

Even ignoring this philosophical conundrum, it is frequently impossible in practice to say that something qualifies as "natural." There are only three possible outcomes, for example, for the excess fuel loads now found in western national forests. The unwanted trees can be removed by prescribed burning; they can be cut down and removed; or they can be left to burn in occasional unplanned conflagrations like the epic fires seen last summer.

The favored Clinton policy was prescribed burning. However, it was a prescribed burn at Los Alamos that grew out of control in May 2000 to cause the loss of more than 230 homes and destroy part of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The least desirable option, according to the theorists of ecosystem management, is the mechanical removal of excess trees by thinning and logging. Any such removal would require the use of heavy equipment and would be legally prohibited in existing wilderness.

Federal forest managers on the ground have thus been put in an impossible position. Nothing they can do -- including taking no action at all -- will really be "natural" according to the precepts of ecosystem management. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the General Accounting Office has repeatedly found the decision process in the Forest Service to be "broken"; management confusion has resulted in a constant state of "gridlock."

Some people think the disease may be terminal. Roger Sedjo, head of the forestry program at Resources for the Future in Washington, D.C., says it may be time to "think the unthinkable." The Forest Service "has been an unusually successful organization for much of its history. That is no longer the case." After eight years of Clinton management, the simplest thing may be to abolish it.

Even before the fires of 2000, William Cronon, America's leading environmental historian, was generating wide controversy by arguing that "the time has come to rethink wilderness"; the social values reflected in the concept of wilderness were having an "insidious" effect on environmental policy-making. The idea of a truly natural forest, for example, is a Disneyland fantasy, or as Cronon puts it, it is a "product of [our] civilization." Nevertheless, the idea that genuine wild areas can exist "serves as the unexamined foundation on which so many of the quasi-religious values of modern environmentalism rest." Environmental activists, in other words, want a Garden of Eden. Paradise lost, paradise regained -- it is a very old story.

The fires last year showed some of the costs of pursuing environmental utopia. It is much easier, to be sure, when other people bear the consequences. Al Gore received a tiny 26 percent of the vote in Utah; 28 percent in Alaska, Idaho, and Wyoming; and 33 percent in Montana. His vote totals in the inland West approached respectable only in those states with large urban centers like Denver, Las Vegas, and Phoenix.

The people living in the far ranging rural West meanwhile have been getting angrier and angrier. It is not a question of any great economic or ideological divergence from other Americans. These westerners are simply close enough to the land to know what is actually happening -- close enough, for example, to see and smell the fires. The 70 percent and higher of rural westerners who voted against Gore in 2000 were simply registering their discontent with their assigned role as pawns for environmental fantasies -- fantasies that are counterproductive economically and environmentally, even if emotionally satisfying to people farther away.

The direct-mail environmentalists in Washington like to suggest that any resistance to their ideas of ecosystem management must be led by loggers, ranchers, miners, and other environmental "reactionaries." The dismal Gore vote in the mountain states -- a sort of referendum on Clinton environmental policy -- put the lie to that. After eight years of the Clinton administration, there are in fact very few loggers and grazers left to vote. The inland western states are the fastest growing part of the United States. And even newcomers quickly figure out that ecosystem management is not working; that -- without active forest management -- the health of much of the 58.5 million acres of newly designated roadless areas will continue to deteriorate. They are aware that many large and intense fires are likely to break out in these areas, perhaps sooner rather than later. And without roads, it will be difficult or impossible to fight these fires.

As the fires rage on, like the fires at Los Alamos this past summer, there will be no stopping them at the borders of wilderness areas. The heavy air pollution -- filled with particulate matter declared by EPA to be a major danger to human health when it happens to come out of a power plant smokestack -- will not respect the boundaries of wilderness designation. Federal taxpayers will then be asked to cough up billions more dollars for fire fighting to bail out this latest example of environmental folly on the national forests.

In the short run, President Bush should rescind Clinton's ban on roads. There are procedural hurdles, but the Bush team can use the environmental and other decision-making documentation put together over the past two years by the Clinton administration -- including a full analysis of a "no action" (no roadless designation) alternative. If the quality of the original environmental documentation was legally sufficient to adopt the Clinton policy, it will be sufficient to rescind it. Current arguments by environmental spokespersons that it could take years to undo the roadless designations are an effort to cover up their legal vulnerability.

In the longer run the obvious solution is to devolve much of the management of the national forests to the people who live in and around them. They bear the consequences, they pay the price -- they should make the decisions. The Bush administration, one can hope, will make every effort over the next four years to let them do so.

Robert H. Nelson is a professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland and senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He is the author of A Burning Issue: A Case for Abolishing the U.S. Forest Service (Rowman & Littlefield).