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 1988.
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 than century.
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?
The public 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 2000.)
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.
Rocky Barker is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a visiting fellow with the Andrus Center for Public Policy in Boise, Idaho, where he is writing a history of the Yellowstone fires.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.