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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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).