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for people who care about the West

'Los Alamos is burning'

  Los Alamos is burning. My wife stands in front of the TV in our home in Lewiston, Idaho, watching CNN with her hands to her face, tears in her eyes. She is whispering softly, a litany of actions from deep in her memory. "They have to pack their things. They have to take the family pictures. They have to get the pets and let the horses out of the corrals."


Twenty-three years ago, she was 18 years old, driving Park Service horses out of Bandelier National Monument, pushing them toward the river and safety. She couldn't find her family. Her father was chief ranger at Bandelier. The La Mesa fire was coming, aiming for her home and, in the distance, Los Alamos, the City of Atomic Fire. Firefighters stopped that fire at the fire line called the Glendale Boulevard after a big wide street in California, in the days when it was still possible to stop such fires.


I started fighting fire for the Park Service in 1972 at Saguaro National Monument near Tucson, Ariz. I fought fire at Bandelier National Monument in 1976 and for a few weeks in 1977, just before La Mesa fire broke. I went to Olympic National Park to fight fire there, but not before I understood that Los Alamos would not be safe until people, or nature, did something to change what has happened to Western forests.


City officials in Los Alamos knew the La Mesa fire had come too close. They asked my dad, a famous Forest Service fire officer in those days, to help them lay out fuel breaks to protect the city from the fire next time. My dad referred them to the New Mexico state forester who gladly helped them. Trees were thinned. Fuel breaks were built - 22 long years ago. But nothing was done to change the exploding populations of trees on neighboring forests on Park Service and Forest Service lands near the city.


Today, it's Los Alamos. Tomorrow we'll read about Spokane, Wash., and Flagstaff, Ariz., and Carson City, Nev., and Idaho City, Idaho. The list is long. Western forests have changed in the past 100 years. In places where 60 to 70 pine trees once grew in open stands, where fire burned at will, unfettered and mostly unremarkable, there are now up to 3,000 trees per acre, a dog-hair thicket so dense firefighters cannot walk through it.


In their ardor for preserving the splendor of Western forests and wild things, well-intentioned people in groups like the Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society and the Friends of the You-Name-the-Forest claim that keeping America's foresters out of American forests will preserve them for all time in a pristine condition. They believe that people are the problem and keeping people out will protect the forests they love so much.


But they are wrong. The lesson of Los Alamos is that only people can change the fate of Western forests. It is time to put down the sword and forge a peace, time to forget our distrust of each other and the burning anger from the past, time to conjure a new West where forests and people live and grow in each other's light. It's time to put out the fires in our hearts and in our towns and do the work that must be done to restore our forests to living, breathing, growing places once again. As I kick through the ashes of Los Alamos today, I know there is no alternative.


We know what comes next. The government will punish the land managers, call a moratorium on prescribed fire, dress in horsehair shirts and thorns, and bemoan cruel fate that raised winds and confused messages and lit the match that burned the city. But we must not let them do so.


When the Park Service turned to its management kit to do something about the worsening forest problem, the only tools available were flamethrowers and lightning bolts. That's not good enough. When the Forest Service releases its roadless land management plan, the only practical tools the agency will have are prescribed fire and wildfire. Again, that's not good enough.


We must work the land back to health, and we must use every tool we have to do so, including logging. I love my forests and I will not harm them. I expect the same from you.


Frank Carroll has worked for the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service and now works for the Potlatch Corp. in Lewiston, Idaho. He is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org).

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Frank Carroll