Environmental Politics Fan Flames of Western Wildfires

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

The United States is experiencing one of the worst wildfire seasons in a century. More than 68,000 wildfires in 13 Western states and Florida have already burned more than 5.5 million acres. With a quarter of the fire season left, the fires rage on.

Why is this happening? In large part, the match was struck by a public lands policy designed to provide President Clinton with a legacy, and a presidential heir. Unfortunately for the environment and the American public, the legacy left by this administration is more likely to be of the scorched earth variety rather than a rustic scene out of a Sierra Club calendar.

The Clinton-Gore team has designated 10 new national monuments. These monuments are part of the administration's "Lands Legacy" program, under which the government would spend more than $1 billion a year to "protect" environmentally valuable lands. With more than 3.6 million acres "protected" in new national monuments - an area larger than Connecticut - President Clinton has set aside more land in the Continental U.S. as national monuments than any other President.

These designations were purely political. A Congressional report found internal Clinton-Gore administration memos stating that the goal of designating the 1.7 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah was to help re-elect Clinton in 1996. In another internal memo to Vice President Gore, major environmental groups promised to endorse the Clinton/Gore ticket and spend $500,000 in the 1996 election to reelect the administration if the designation was made.

Since the states involved did not support the move to designate these monuments, the administration did not even attempt to get Congressional approval. So, it had to get funding outside of the normal appropriations process. Interior Department employees recently revealed that the Clinton/Gore team cut the Interior Department's fire preparedness budget from $322 million to $305 million in 2000 while increasing the White House budget for land acquisitions and new monument maintenance from $15 million to $49 million. The administration has also slashed the Interior request for 2001 from $400 million to $297 million, while simultaneously increasing its land acquisition and monument budget from $49 million to $60 million.

In an August 1999 report, the General Accounting Office warned that under funding was weakening fire preparedness. The former director of the National Interagency Fire Center argued that the redirection of funds to land acquisition and national monuments placed the public and firefighters at risk. Unfortunately, the administration ignored the warnings. So far in 2000, eight people, including firefighters, have died, more than 400 homes have been destroyed and billions of dollars of damage have been suffered. The Governor of Montana has been forced to declare his entire state a disaster area.

The administration has done more than slash the budgets of forestry agencies. It has also closed many forest roads and proposed banning road building on nearly 50 million additional acres. Indeed, in the last decade, the government has reduced logging and its attendant road building in national forests. While most forest roads are built for timber or recreational access, they become critical for wildlife management, forest health and firefighting activities.

Timber harvests have plunged 75 percent, and road building has declined from 2,000 miles per year in the 1980s to less than 500 miles in the late 1990s. While historically large ponderosa pines grew in stands of 20-55 trees per acre, they now grow and burn in densities of 300-900 trees per acre. According to Forest Service figures, fully 60 percent of national forest land is unhealthy and faces an abnormal fire hazard.

The result, fire damage to homes and property increased six-fold to $3.2 billion between 1990 and 1997. This figure excludes the cost from wildfires and mismanaged controlled burns since 1997 and the estimated $1 billion replacement costs of the homes and belongings lost in the Los Alamos fire. Wildfires that destroy 1,000 acres or more have increased from 25 per year in 1984 to 80 a year in recent years.

The fire hazard can be reduced in three ways. First is mechanical thinning of vegetation or logging. Second is the use of small "controlled" burns, which Los Alamos teaches are inherently risky, unless there has been some mechanical pre-treatment. Failing to successfully choose one of these options leaves only the "Burn baby Burn" option that we are currently witnessing.

Our forests, the public who use them and the heroic Americans who fight the fires deserve a forest policy that places public safety, environmental health and fiscal responsibility before a particular administration's need to satisfy a powerful environmental constituency.