national forests

by Paul SchwennesenPrometheus, mankind’s great advocate and insubordinate pilferer of flame, must be perplexed by the goings-on in fire-riven Arizona. The towering columns of smoke have gone, but the forest conflagration has left behind half a million charred acres and more than a few smoldering resentments. Primary among these resentments is a question over management of public forest resources: who should decide how we avoid or at least mitigate such a calamity in the future? It is of course ironic; Marx claimed Prometheus as the figurehead of the communal mystique, and no asset is more communally owned than America’s western forests. Not surprisingly, these forests are a prime example of the tragic consequences of collective ownership and central management.In addition to our famed cactus down south, Arizona harbors around seven billion cubic feet of live timber and the world’s largest stand of ponderosa pine. The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest lies on 2.63 million acres of this stand. Each year, solar energy and carbon are converted into nearly twenty-four million cubic feet of timber on national forest land. This resource is impressive and aesthetic, drawing sun-scorched tourists by the busload.It also draws “managers” by the score. Aldo Leopold embarked on his first Forest Service assignment here in 1909, just a few miles from Bear Wallow. Ever since, the forest has been managed in the public domain by well-educated and better-intentioned technocrats charged with maximizing the public good. Under a complicated rubric of “multi-use,” the Forest Service attempts to harvest the sustainable yield of the resource (it is, after all, under the Department of Agriculture). Timber, livestock grazing, and hunting permits are just a few of the “extractive” uses they are charged with upholding. Habitat protection, endangered species management, and increasing recreational demands are a large and growing slice of the resource allocation pie.The extraordinarily difficult job of balancing these competing demands is precisely the sort of thing that bureaucracies are bad at handling. As Malcolm Gladwell notes, these kinds of complex problems are not puzzles (which more information and better education can help solve), but mysteries (in which more information and better education tends to confuse). In the late-1980s, for instance, timber harvesting off national forest land came to a nearly complete halt as a result of court injunctions precipitated in the Pacific Northwest. Litigation by environmentally conscious lobbying groups, specifically over concerns of habitat destruction for endangered species, made large-scale timber harvest a thing of the past. Grazing permits likewise encountered a dramatic decline for similar reasons. Combined with an aggressive thirty-year campaign of actively putting out all fires (is there any more iconic mascot than Smoky the Bear?), these actions led predictably to a dramatic increase in forest-density and ground cover.Forest density and ground cover is called “habitat” by the green contingent, “fuel-load” by their brown compatriots. And, of course, there is an element of truth in each view, often masking personal preferences and economic agendas. But the point is this: the kind of see-sawing policy shifts which encouraged dramatic, perhaps unsustainable, increases in extractive uses in the early 1980s was followed by dramatic, perhaps unconscionable, reductions in these uses a decade later. These market-insulated policy shifts were not based on good information (which markets are extraordinarily good at projecting), but on politics and the relative power of lobbying those in control. The short-term increases in forest habitat resulting from reduced extraction charged the pan for the tremendous blazes we have encountered in the past decade.This past May, one of the sun-scorched tourists started a blaze that subsequently burned more acreage than any other single event in state history. Two and a half billion board feet of timber are estimated to have gone up in a whiff of carbon and particulate pollution this summer. Five hundred nineteen thousand, three hundred and nineteen acres of prime habitat, prime camping, prime hunting, and prime timber disappeared in an ecological blink of an eye. Before us lie the smoking remnants of command-and-control planning gone predictably awry.“Well,” you say, “forests burn periodically, it’s a natural and proper consequence of growth.” If only it were that simple. Fire is indeed a natural ecological force, particularly in the brittle ecosystems of the semi-arid west. But size matters. Half-million acre infernos are almost certainly not typical of the “natural” order of things.