NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Environmental Smoke And Flames

August 15, 2000

For decades, environmental activists have fought to keep forests in Western states locked up in the federal government's care and off limits to timber companies. But as of Saturday, fires had destroyed nearly 4.5 million acres of U.S. "wildlands" -- nearly double the average amount of destruction at this stage of summer over the past 10 years.

Government agencies have come in for their share of criticism over handling of the fires, but less attention has been paid to the fact that the destructiveness of this summer's disastrous fires is due to environmental policies adopted by the federal government.

  • One principle embodied in the 1964 Wilderness Act was that federal forests should be left free of roads -- including roads which fire trucks might use.
  • At the behest of environmentalists, use of insecticides and fungicides were banned -- allowing disease and bark beetles to kill stands of trees and make them powerful tinder for forest fires.
  • Timber harvesting on federal lands -- which once cleared mature trees before they became deadwood -- has been cut back by some 75 percent in the past decade.
  • Despite the pile up of natural tinder, environmentalists and the federal government adopted the philosophy of letting Mother Nature have her way through "natural burns" to clean out the dead wood and underbrush.

Experts report that the government's attitude began to shift in the 1990s -- after some especially bad summers of "natural burn." "Controlled burns" were initiated to create fire breaks and reduce the danger of fires. But the accumulation of dry combustibles was enormous and even controlled burns quickly got out of control.

In 1964, the year the Wilderness Act was passed, only 194,000 acres of federal lands were lost to fires -- 4.3 percent of what has been lost so far this year.

Source: George Melloan, "The American West Is Burning; Who's to Blame?" Wall Street Journal, August 15, 2000.


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