There isn’t much I can praise about the Bush administration’s approach to Western resource issues.
But its instincts on firefighting policy are just about
right. If it can fill in its knee-jerk act of cutting the budget
with a sound, long-term policy, it could lead the West out of a
quagmire that has been deepening since the Yellowstone fires of
The problem with most of the administration’s
policies for the West is that they are politically driven to please
supporters in the oil, mining, ranching and timber industries. They
are also a reaction to Bill Clinton’s approach, which was
designed to please his environmental constituency: politics for
politics, tit for tat.
Now, libertarians in the Office of
Management and Budget have slashed the funding slated to fight
forest fires in a year when the West is expecting another huge
burning season. This gutsy act -- already under attack -- could
lead us to a rational forest-fire policy for the first time in more
Congress allocated the Forest Service $420
million to fight fires this year, about $1 billion less than the
agencies spent last year. Congress only gave the Forest Service
$636 million in the budget to cover the $919 million it raided from
other programs like forest restoration, watershed protection and
yes, even forest fire prevention programs such as thinning.
The message Bush and Congress have sent the Forest
Service is that it can’t keep sending a blank check to fight
fires. This is a radical change from a policy that began after the
1910 fires, which burned 2.6 million acres and killed 85 people in
two days in Idaho and Montana. The policy has continued in the face
of indisputable evidence that fighting fires leads to larger, more
dangerous and more costly fires.
So what should the
Forest Service do -- let the fires burn?
simply won’t stand for such a policy. Western politicians,
who have provided the political muscle to keep throwing money on
forest fires,will revolt, especially when the huge conflagrations
we regularly experience threaten towns and cities in their
districts. But we know this isn’t good for forests, and it
costs more than we can stomach.
We must act. We need to
get the backlog of fire plans in place so land managers can allow
fires to burn in the backcountry and places like the Clearwater
National Forest in Idaho. We need to fireproof communities and
follow the lead of California to make homeowners -- not the federal
government -- responsible for protecting their own homes. When
fires are burning, we need to reward a land manager who wisely
allows a fire to burn for good reason, not sting him or her. (This
doesn’t mean we reward poor decisions like the one that led
to the burning of more than 600 homes in Los Alamos, N.M., in
To make this happen, Congress needs to create a
National Fire Corps, setting firefighters apart from land managers.
Give them the training, the career paths and the tools to fight
fires when necessary and control fires when they make sense. In
easy years and during off season, these professionals would conduct
controlled burns to manage forests at significantly less cost than
commercial thinning. They could do mechanical thinning around park
developments like Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone.
Right now, the government contracts private air tankers to fight
fires next to communities. We don’t do this because
it’s cheaper; we do it because the fleet would not pass the
strenuous safety regulations we expect for our military and other
fliers. This is a great time to turn the job over to the military
and develop airplanes specifically for the job, instead of using
old planes. Smart bomb computer technology also could make the
planes more efficient, reducing the costs and need for firefighters
on the ground.
The Fire Corps would eventually be smaller
than the giant force we employ today, and the cost of fire
management would drop. Forest Service employees currently siphoned
off to fight fires would get more done in the summer. Forest
management would become more efficient.
The problem for
the Bush administration is that such changes won’t save money
in the short run. But it can’t be more costly than the
current system of letting the fire season dictate our spending on
fires. In fire policy, as is often the case, good fiscal policy is
also good environmental policy.