Last year's wild fires in the West burned about 7 million acres, destroyed 800 homes, cost $1.5 billion and killed 23 firefighters.
Good thing that, according to many environmentalists. Well, definitely not the deaths. But forests? Sure. They were meant to burn periodically. A good fire can clean out the scrub brush, and the click beetles, and replenish the soil, and open up seeds of piñón pines. Seriously.
"Natural and controlled forest fires are integral to the health of all forests. They restore nutrients to the soil, create habitat for fish and wildlife and help eliminate the smaller brush and saplings that compete with the forests' large and fire-resistant trees," GreenpeaceUSA wrote in responding to President Bush's Healthy Forests Initiative moving toward completion in Congress.
What's bad -- and what makes forest fires bad, according to these environmentalists -- is to log forests. As
timbering our forests and the fires therein will play the role that
Mother Nature and God intended them to play -- a vital role of targeted
renewal and replacement -- not one of total devastation as we are
seeing in the fires raging in southern
Who can argue with such ecological truths? Not the
But maybe the dinosaurs would disagree. In
The environmentalists were right about the unsustainability of logging all trees.
While the last couple of years' death toll is tragic, the death numbers in some previous conflagrations were astonishing. In 1871, for example, more than 1,200 people died in
Most fires, like those in
In light of the fact humans were the cause of most fires and humans, along with little Bambies and Smokey Bears, were threatened by them, it is little wonder that among the main goals of the Forest Service was to suppress fires. And it is why most Americans since the 1950s have gotten the word from Smokey, "Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires."
The effort at saving our forests has worked - indeed, it's worked beyond its needs. As Alan Caruba of the National Anxiety Center has noted,
That increase, though, may represent an unnatural overgrowth of trees. The density of the forests themselves may actually threaten biodiversity, as they are unsuitable as habitat for elk and deer. Further, overgrowth of old growth trees, such as the Douglas fir, means new Douglas fir won't grow. That eventually could lead to a mixed forest.
Even the forest preservationists among the environmentalists agree there's a problem from past efforts at fire suppression. What they differ about is the solution.
The preservationists prefer a hands off approach wherever possible, to let nature take its course. If that means big fires -- as long as they are not near populated areas -- so be it. Near populated areas, their favored course is to borrow a trick from the Indians, and have "controlled" burnings to get out the underbrush. In short, fire is your or, rather, Mother Nature's friend.
while suppressing fires may have had its problems, using controlled
burns also has shown to be dangerous -- with one destroying more than
600 buildings in
Thus, most of those choking on the smoke and seeing through the haze may hope there is a little better -- less hazardous, more healthy for human -- way. After all what sense does it make to reduce pollution from cars, but encourage burning trees in ways that are as damaging to the air and potentially, according to some of the same group of environmentalists, the climate? Man burns, it's bad: Mother Nature burns, it's OK? Tell it to the dinosaurs.
President Bush's Healthy Forest Initiative may be a step in a wiser direction. It isn't, as environmentalists claim, the old, vast clearcutting of past timber industry practice. That would be stupid. It attempts to mimic nature in a little safer way. It would allow some logging of old growth trees to those who clear out the undergrowth as well.
But as Roger A. Sedjo of Resources for the Future wrote in 2001 when he was a visiting scholar at PERC, The Center for Free Market Environmentalism: "Our forest today is very different from what it was 100 years ago. With this backdrop of a changed forest, the nation finds itself struggling with forest management systems that do not work."
He suggests that power over forest fires be returned to the people. He would encourage a greater local voice in managing the national forests and less power to national politicians and advocacy groups.
Yes, the locals screwed up in the past. So what? The national government and interest groups have hardly proven they are all knowledge and truth, either. National policies are one size fits all -- suppress fires, thin trees, let 'em burn. They don't work in all places, all the time. Local policies can be adapted to fit the situation and adopted in ways that make sense.
Give Californians, Coloradans, Arizonans and New Mexicans and residents of other states more of a hand in managing their forest resources. They can prevent forest fires, or cause them, and live and die with the consequences.