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Why is the West Always Burning Down?

June 26, 2002

By Linda Platts and Holly Lippke Fretwell

BOZEMAN, Mont. – A journalist from an eastern newspaper called our offices in Bozeman, Montana, last week to ask “Why is the West always burning down?” For those of us who live here, it is an exasperating question because we already know the answer. The simple explanation is that millions of acres of national forest land throughout the West are stoked with fuel, and dry as tinder from a long drought and higher than average temperatures.

But the real answer goes deeper. Fuel stoked forests can be treated with thinning, brush removal, and prescribed burns, but the institutions that govern our public lands are so dysfunctional they are unable to perform these tasks. We are saddled with onerous bureaucracies incapable of implementing innovative programs, reacting nimbly, or responding to regional differences.


Add to this dilemma the politicians who love to throw money at a good crisis if it plays well with the voters. Following the fires of 2000, a new National Fire Plan was passed by Congress and supplied with more than $4 billion dollars to enhance fire preparedness and reduce fire risk. Unfortunately, the Forest Service is already unable to account for $756 million of these funds that were intended to reduce fuel loads near communities at high risk.

We do know that new firefighters have been recruited, outfitted, trained and salaried. Alas, firefighters cannot stop wildfires of the proportions we are witnessing today. Only Mother Nature can do this. A shift in the wind, a little moisture, a cool cloudy day, and in some cases a change of season are the way she snuffs out a fire. The 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park only stopped burning when fall’s first snow arrived.

Now, in the first week of summer, it is already starkly evident that all that money being tossed around did nothing to reduce wildfires. This fire season, 2.6 million acres have burned compared to 1.3 million acres for the same time period in 2000, the largest fire year in 50 years. Right now, 18 major fires continue to burn in six states.

Yet there is an answer to this recurring cycle of deadly fires. Reducing fuel loads can change catastrophic fires that destroy watersheds, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, and scenic landscapes into fires that cleanse and renew the land. It is possible for federal land agencies to accomplish this goal if freed from conflicting regulations, political tampering, and public appeals.

Proof lies in the Manitou Experimental Forest in Colorado where thinning and prescribed burns have been practiced for more than 50 years. Last week, the Hayman fire, the largest in Colorado’s history, burned through the crowns of pine trees until it reached the Manitou. There, it dropped to the ground and burned beneath a stand of mature 80-foot ponderosa pines in an open savannah-like grove. It left behind blackened bunch grass and some scorched trunks, but the fire-resistant ponderosas were spared.

The management approach used in Manitou is not appropriate to all western forests. Yet the flexibility that experimental sites and demonstration forests allow is invaluable to learning how to better manage all types of forests. New strategies can be tested and new technologies tried, including those for preventing and fighting wildfires.

By decentralizing agencies like the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management and allowing managers to respond to the unique landscapes under their care, we will see better stewardship. Change the incentives from pleasing politicians to providing good stewardship.

But don’t leave it there. Make the managers truly accountable. Let’s see how they determine high risk areas. Let’s see how they reduce the fire risk. And let’s see how the public’s money is spent. Show us the receipts. Unencumbered by politics, private land managers such as ranchers, farmers and orchard owners do as much and are accountable to the bank and the families they support.

For once, let’s not play the blame game by pointing our fingers at the Forest Service or the timber industry or the environmental groups. Increase demonstration sites and allow more local control. Give federal land managers more authority, but require more accountability. Under the current system, good land stewardship is impossible. Now that is the real reason why the West is always burning down.

Linda Platts is an editorial associate and Holly Lippke Fretwell is a research associate specializing in public land issues at PERC—the Center for Free Market Environmentalism in Bozeman, Montana, which explores market approaches to environmental problems.

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