Reforming an agency such as the Forest Service is like pushing an old truck up a hill. It’s grunt work, and unless you have a lot of friends, you won’t get anywhere. But every once in a long while, there’s a shift. A moment when you’ve crested the rise and start picking up speed. A moment when, if you know where you’re headed, you might actually steer down a new road.
issue of High Country News, you’ll read
about just such a moment: the Big Blowup of 1910, when wildfires
exploded across the Northern Rockies. Historian and fire ecologist
Stephen Pyne writes that the huge fires arrived as foresters were
pushing the young U.S. Forest Service to fight fires, rather than
light them as the Indians and early settlers did. The Big Blowup
pushed the Forest Service over the top. For the next 90 years it
would wage war on what the agency’s first chief, Gifford
Pinchot, called "the Dragon of Devastation."
Scientists have since come to understand that, to some degree,
catastrophic wildfire is a monster of our own creation. Stamping
out forest fires, combined with aggressive road building and
logging, has changed the West’s woods. At one time, these
forests saw frequent, cleansing fires. They now burn less often,
but when they do, they go big. Wildland firefighting, meanwhile,
has become a monster in its own right, as the Forest Service dips
into emergency coffers, throwing billions at fires that only get
worse the more we fight them.
In the next issue
of High Country News, Mark Matthews writes about
another big blowup — the fires of 2000. Last summer’s
fires are remarkable not just for the destruction they wrought but
for the wake-up call they gave members of Congress. For the first
time, lawmakers have thrown mountains of money behind fire
prevention, instead of fire suppression. As we write, the Forest
Service is training crews to thin out doghair thickets so that fire
can return as a restorative, rather than a destructive, force.
Whether or not the agency sticks to this new
course will depend on many things, not the least of which is
President Bush’s pick for Forest Service chief. But at its
heart, as Pyne points out, the Forest Service’s direction
will depend not on new firefighting techniques or lots of money,
but on the agency and those who care about the forests creating a
new mythology, a new vision for the public woods. A 9-to-5
bureaucracy can’t transform the national forests. The trouble
is not a lack of policy. It’s a lack of story and people
committed to that story.