Are we ready to learn the lessons of fire and flood?

 

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.

No 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 to 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.

Fires in 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 wildland firefighting.

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 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 away from the American public. That year, Yellowstone began burning again in a fire, which then-Idaho Rep. Larry Craig predicted in the spring. It grew far larger than anyone expected, burning more than a million acres.

Most Americans saw the fires on television screens that summer just as we recently watched the devastation of hurricanes Katrina and Rita and Wilma. The verdict 17 years ago for most Americans was that fire was "destroying" their national shrine. Ecologists were mostly ignored when they insisted that the fires were natural and would renew the forests.

What few recognized then, was that the Yellowstone fires of 1988 were the first in a series of giant fires that signaled a larger climatic change scientists were only beginning to understand. It was part of the global warming that a majority of the world’s climate scientists 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. 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.

The hurricanes of 2005 have again brought to a head the debate over when humans should control nature and when they should get out of the way. They also are prompting a debate over the proper role of the federal government in those decisions.

Sen. Craig’s controversial position of returning coastal lowlands to nature shows how far some of us have come since soldiers sought to control the fires of Yellowstone. Lessons like this often come at a heavy cost. Ignoring them, though, costs even more.

Rocky Barker is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the environmental reporter for the Idaho Statesman and the author of the new book, Scorched Earth: How the Fires in Yellowstone Changed America.