Features

Too little, too late

National | A firestorm of criticism is kindling over how the Forest Service handled this summer's fires

Issue: "Something's rotten," Sept. 30, 2000

Cooler temperatures recently have allowed firefighting crews to get a handle on the forest fires that ripped across the western United States this summer, but the damage has been done. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, over 76,000 fires blackened 6.6 million acres of national forest, an area larger than Massachusetts, and many fires still burn. A million acres were charred in Montana alone. Since 1994 nearly 27 million acres have burned, more acreage than Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Jersey combined. The flames in the forests are waning, but the government is facing a firestorm of criticism for failing to anticipate the disaster or respond properly. "This problem has been predicted since the early 1950s. We have known for that long that this was going to happen," said Jim Petersen, executive director of the Evergreen Foundation, a forestry think tank. In March the General Accounting Office (GAO) reported that forests in the interior West are in poor health. They have grown much denser and are suffering increased insect and disease infestations. This jeopardizes timber production and their ability to sustain wildlife. Moreover, it escalates the risk of major fires. "We began fighting forest fires in the West in the 1930s, and exclusion of fire is the primary reason why we're having these fires today," Mr. Petersen said. "But it's overly simplistic to say we have too many trees. We have not only too many trees, but the wrong kinds of trees growing in the wrong kinds of places. Nature is going to correct these imbalances if we don't do it. What we've seen this year is how nature corrects the imbalance." Douglas Leisz, retired associate chief of the Forest Service, estimates that at least 40 billion board feet of lumber was lost, enough for 3.5 million homes and worth between $10 billion and $16 billion to the government in timber sales. He blames the Clinton administration for the loss, charging in an Aug. 24 letter to the president that in recent years the number of field officers was halved while 300 bureaucrats were added to the Washington office. "The Forest Service has become just another incompetent federal agency that has lost sight of its purpose," said Jim Rathbun, who retired a few years ago as forest supervisor of Montana's Kootenai National Forest. What about putting the fires out? "Too little, too late," said John Hossack, formerly forest supervisor for Idaho's Clearwater National Forest. "They should have been building up their fire crews in May and June instead of waiting until they had all these fires and then trying to recruit people." Bill Campbell, volunteer firefighter for the Sula Rural Fire Department in Montana, says that the Forest Service let the Spade Creek fire burn for four days before trying to build "back fires," controlled burns that consume fuel in the path of an out-of-control fire. But the Forest Service built the back fires too far away, and one in a bottleneck canyon. "The prevailing winds picked it up and it went out of control," he recalled. Sixteen homes were destroyed. Some firefighters charge that the Forest Service's environmentally friendly policies hampered effective firefighting. For example, biological "advisors" rode in the cabs of heavy equipment (mostly bulldozers) at all times to ensure operators minimized soil disturbance and avoided endangered species and sensitive plant populations. One operator, to whom WORLD granted anonymity because his firm works with the Forest Service, says that while he was so close to a 50-foot wall of flame that the paint was peeling on his dozer, his advisor was more concerned about disturbing the soil of a sensitive fern. Danny Castillo, assistant director of Forest and Range in the Missoula Regional Forest Service office, is hesitant to talk, as were all Forest Service employees WORLD interviewed. Mr. Castillo contends conflicting policies and laws, coupled with public opinion, make it difficult for the Forest Service to manage well. He agrees, however, that funds were short and "we spent too much on oversight teams and not enough on firefighters." "We have two choices," said Mr. Petersen. "We can either begin to reduce tree stand densities mechanically, by logging, slowly reducing the tension on an ecological watch that's wound way too tight or, in the absence of purposeful treatment, we're going to stand by and watch the West's national forests burn to the ground."

-Troy Mader is a World Journalism Institute student

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