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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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.