HOW THE FEDS HAVE TURNED FORESTS INTO TINDERBOXES
Over the past several months intense wildfires have been raging in 11 Western states, fueled by dense forests and underbrush. Wildfires in Colorado and in California have been the largest on record. The ferocious wildfire in Arizona took the lives of 19 firefighters. The one in California’s Sierra Nevada and Yosemite National Park is unprecedented with some walls of fire running through river canyons at heights over 300 feet. Nearly 3,700 firefighters have been battling these blazes. Why so many, and why so intense? The answer lies in federal destruction of private ranches and logging operations and in federal mismanagement of wilderness lands.
Destruction stemming from the Sierra Nevada fire is feared to present a risk of contamination to the HetchHetchy reservoir, endangering the water supply for the 2.6 million residents of San Francisco Bay. Hydroelectric power and other utilities are also threatened.
Over the last two decades the frequency, intensity and severity of wildfires in Western states have increased, resulting in far more devastation and death to humans and animals than ever before in our nation’s history.In 1991, fighting fires accounted for 13 percent of the Forest Service budget. It now accounts for 40 percent of that budget. The number of Forest Service staff dedicated to firefighting has risen by 110 percent since 1998. Last year the Forest Service overspent its firefighting budget by $440 million.
Wildfires have become commonplace precisely as federal government efforts to rid the West of private ranching and logging operations have succeeded. The overzealous BLM and Forest Service have driven private companies and ranchers out of the West over the last four decades in satisfaction of environmentalist demands. Logging operations, ranch cattle and sheep, and rancher elimination of underbrush have been severely reduced. Federal fire suppression efforts have increased year after year, creating dense forests that invite massive wildfires.
Since passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, environmental litigation combined with federal policies favorable to environmental interests have forced the end of most logging operations and have driven ranchers out of existence all across the West. The ranchers that remain spend considerable amounts of time responding to aggressive Forest and Park Service demands, which include fines for trespass, ever increasing fees, and prohibitions on use of lands and water rights. Cattleand sheep that once roamed through the federal lands and cleared the fire-prone underbrush have been forced out, allowing the underbrush to grow virtually without limit. Federal fire suppression initiatives have greatly outpaced the Forest Service’s own underbrush elimination programs, which programs are now underfunded and very limited.
Over the last one hundred years, Forest Service fire suppression operations in public parks have transformed millions of acres of public parks into enormous forest tinderboxes that ignite each Spring and Summer when lightning strikes or when even one hunter, camper, or Park Service employee fail to extinguish adequately camp fires.
Since the 1990’s, while ridding the West of logging, ranches, and even county roads, the Forest Service and Department of Interior have simultaneously discontinued most of their own underbrush elimination programs. The result has been overgrowth of flammable underbrush and a dramatic rise in the number, frequency, and severity of fires. That, in turn, adds hundreds of millions of dollars in government expense for emergency fire rescue and suppression activities.
The Forest Service admits that fire suppression is not working and that reduction in underbrush (such as occurred when four decades ago ranches and livestock traversed public lands) is a critical missing factor. Indeed, the Service is now advocating increased taxpayer funding for “Hazardous Fuels Reduction” programs. When ranches and cattle were more numerous in the West and when state and local authorities were allowed to keep and maintain historic rights of way over federal lands, the excess fuel problem was eliminated without need for a single federal tax dollar to be spent and without the kind of mismanagement that has characterized federal regulation over the last forty years.
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In short, the rash of wildfires this year and likely into the foreseeable future is the result of gross federal mismanagement and destruction of private holdings and operations. The destruction of private property, propelled by federal environmental enforcement campaigns to rid the West be rid of people and livestock, has given rise to an effect unanticipated by federal planners, an effect contrary to their stated mission—massive wildfires that cause extraordinary destruction akin to the explosion of thermonuclear weapons, destruction far greater than ever was alleged to occur from ranching and logging, resulting in the incineration of whole ecosystems (all flora and fauna).
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