Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig caused a stir Oct. 14, when he suggested that the 9th Ward, home of many of New Orleans’ poor, should be restored as a wetland.
one would call Craig a tree-hugger. Craig has built a career out of
supporting dams and levee systems that have reshaped the West. He
once suggested carving a road across the Frank Church-River of No
Return Wilderness. When it comes to deciding whether to control
nature or accept its power, Craig has nearly always picked control.
Democrats like Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana would like
to portray Craig’s latest view as indifference to the plight
and needs of the poor. But I think his shift is due to a new
respect for the power of nature.
You could say that we
are slow to learn. Hurricane Katrina was just the latest natural
disaster to reshape our perception of what a hurricane can do and
undo. It also has forced us to reconsider the proper role of state
and federal government in our lives.
Yellowstone, a century apart, steered a similar transformation of
our view of the world. Wildfire was burning on the hillside across
from Mammoth Hot Springs in 1886, when the park’s military
superintendent issued his first order. He sent troopers to fight
the fire, beginning the federal government’s commitment to
Ten years later, in 1896, the
National Academy of Sciences Forest Commission concluded that the
federal government could hold on to large tracts of federal land
because the Army in Yellowstone had proved that eliminating fire
was possible. Thanks to the Army’s success so many years ago,
our national policy became the protection of 600 million acres of
public land from the natural process of periodic burning.
Our primary means of protection was stopping fires wherever they
began, a policy supported by both preservationist John Muir and
wise-use advocate Gifford Pinchot. Over the next 100 years, the
exclusion of fire from millions of acres of forestland added brush
and thousands of extra trees to every acre. The result: Forests on
public land are unnaturally susceptible to huge blazes. At the same
time, thousands of homes have been built next door, making the
inevitable fires even more destructive.
By 1988, the
debate over whether to put out all fires or to allow some to burn
had matured in the science and management community. But all this
was largely hidden from the American public. That year, Yellowstone
began burning again in a fire, which then-Idaho Rep. Larry Craig
had predicted in the spring. And the fire grew far larger than
anyone expected, burning more than a million acres.
Americans saw the fires on television screens that summer, just as
we recently watched the devastation of hurricanes Katrina, Rita and
Wilma. The verdict 17 years ago for most of those viewers was that
fire was "destroying" their national shrine. Ecologists were
largely ignored when they insisted that the fires were natural and
would renew the forests.
What few then recognized was
that the Yellowstone fires of 1988 were the first in a series of
giant fires, a signal of a larger climatic change that scientists
were only beginning to understand. It was part of the global
warming that a majority of the world’s climate scientists now
attribute to the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from
human fossil fuel burning.
Sen. Craig, who had long been
a critic of the theory of global warming, was one of the earliest
Western Republicans to publicly suggest that those scientists might
be right after all. In 2000, he switched his position from
questioning the science of global warming to seeking an alternative
strategy for addressing the problem, one that might allow farmers
and foresters to make money by storing carbon.
hurricanes of 2005 have again brought to a head the debate over
when humans should control nature and when they should get out of
its way. They also are prompting a debate over the proper role of
the federal government in those decisions.
Craig’s controversial suggestion that we should return
coastal lowlands to nature shows how far some of us have come since
those soldiers first sought to control the fires of Yellowstone.
Lessons like this often come at a heavy cost. Ignoring them,
though, costs even more.