A lengthy report in the Seattle Times reveals just how out of control the Forest Service’s fire program has become. Rather than a subprogram aimed at protecting the national forests and adjacent lands from fire damage, fire has become the agency’s main driver and raison d’être.
According to the Times, to control a fire in the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, the agency cut hundreds of acres of old-growth trees to form a ten-mile long fire line. As it turned out, the fire was put out by rain long before it reached the fire line, but the agency continued to cut the fire line even after it began to rain. Fisheries biologists and other resource specialists within the agency protested the cutting to no avail.
“One of the problems with fire fighting is a mentality completely takes hold that pretty much you are going to double down on things just simply because you want to protect your rear,” forest ecologist Jerry Franklin told the Times. “It is very characteristic, they just freak out. Basically in a sense it’s war. And you don’t worry a whole lot about side effects. It is what’s called collateral damage.”
It’s spring, which means it’s time for the annual spate of articles asking: Are we loving the national parks to death? Journalists have tediously asked this question for at least thirty years. One article from a few days ago suggests we limit the number of visitors into the parks, perhaps by allowing only the first so many hundred cars in each day. For example, Grand Teton has proposed allowing only 200 cars on a popular road at any given time.
A small crowd of people watch the Lion Geyser erupt in Yellowstone.
On one hand, national park visitation is up, which is actually a relief as a few years ago it appeared that people were losing interest in the parks. Between 1999 and 2003, visitation dropped precipitously from 287 million to 266 million visits per year. It didn’t reach the 1999 level again until 2014, then jumped to 307 million visits in 2015.
Jack Ward Thomas, the 13th chief of the Forest Service, died the other day, and with him went a lot of the traditions of the Forest Service, both good and bad. Thomas was a top-notch researcher with an expertise in elk and other large mammals, and as a Forest Service wildlife biologist he published some of the most important research showing that timber harvesting wasn’t always compatible with game habitat. Unfortunately, his appointment as head of the Forest Service was an example of the Peter Principle, as it put him in the middle of a highly charged political environment that he wasn’t trained to deal with.
I first met Jack when we were both doing research in Northeastern Oregon forests, and I have a few fond memories of him. However, I can’t say I knew him well enough to write a eulogy for him. Instead, I’d like to eulogize the era of the Forest Service that he represented.
The Forest History Society says Thomas was the first person since 1910 to be made chief as a political appointment. I don’t think that’s quite true: in 1933, Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Rex Tugwell named his friend, Ferdinand Silcox, chief even though Silcox hadn’t worked for the agency in 16 years. The seven chiefs between Silcox and Thomas, however, all had worked their way up the ranks of the agency, having spent time in local, regional, and Washington, DC, offices of either the research or national forest branches of the agency. Most of them remained chief until they were ready to retire, as no president between Taft and Clinton ever tried to replace a chief with someone of their own liking.
The federal government owns so much of Nevada–nearly 85 percent–that it has put a crimp in the state’s economy. The Antiplanner has designated it, along with Alaska, a remnant of the “Old Feudalism” in which the government or a few private parties own so much land that it is hard for individual residents to own land and conduct business.
Still, there is something wrong with a bill proposed in Congress with the peculiar title of Honor the Nevada Enabling Act of 1864 Act. The bill’s premise is that Congress failed to convey to Nevada lands that it gave to 38 other states at statehood, so Congress should immediately give the state 7.2 million acres of its choosing, with more acres to be given to the state later.
This is historically inaccurate. Only 30 states, including Nevada, received federal lands on statehood, not 38 as claimed by proponents of the so-called Honor bill. Nevada was made a state in 1864, and was among those states created between 1849 and 1896 that were offered two square miles of land out of every 36 square miles in the state–that is, sections 16 and 36 out of every township.* That would have been 3.9 million acres in Nevada. These lands were to be used to help fund schools.
The Antiplanner was in Washington, DC on Tuesday to testify before the Federal Land Action Group, an unofficial Congressional committee made up of representatives from western states who support more local control of federal lands. Several of the committee members expressed the opinion that federal land would be better managed by the states because the easterners who made up a majority of Congress didn’t understand the West.
While I believe the federal lands could be better managed, I had to throw cold water on some of their ideas. The real debate, I said, wasn’t between easterners and westerners. It was between urbanites who have little connection with agriculture, forestry, and mining, and ruralites whose jobs depended on those sectors of the economy. Ninety percent of residents of the West live in urban areas that occupy just one percent of the land, and–unlike forty or so years ago–few if those urbanites have jobs that directly depend in mining, logging, or farming.
The population of the most rural state in the West, Montana, is 55 percent urban; Wyoming and Alaska are 65 percent; Idaho and New Mexico from 70 to 80 percent; and all the others are more than 80 percent urban. Many people in these urban areas moved to or stay in the West because they love the easy access to recreation on federal lands, and polls show that most of them support continued federal ownership of these lands. Can anyone really think that ranchers and other rural interests are going to get more sympathy from the West’s urbanites than those from the East?
The Hammonds case in eastern Oregon is the result of a political tug-of-war between ranchers and environmentalists. Congress’ willingness to cater to whichever happens to be most politically powerful has left public land management in a shambles and subject to repeated disputes like this one.
Two acts of Congress, one passed in 1978 and one in 2000, played hidden but key roles in the Hammonds’ case. The Public Range Improvement Act (PRIA) of 1978 was passed at the behest of ranchers, but ultimately it may have worked against them. The Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act of 2000 was passed in response to environmental lobbying, and it probably generated much of the Hammonds’ hostility to the federal government.
When the Forest Service and later the Grazing Service (forerunner of the BLM) started regulating grazing, they established rules that were similar to rules the ranchers themselves had developed years before the agencies were created. These rules were much like those for mining and water, and included first-in-time, first-in-right and use-it-or-lose-it.
The more I read about the case of Dwight and Steven Hammond, the more convinced I am that their prison sentences are a gross miscarriage of justice. After conducting prescribed fires on their own land that crossed onto a few acres of federal grasslands, they were convicted of arson on federal lands, which under a 1996 anti-terrorism law carries a five-year mandatory minimum sentence.
The law says, “Whoever maliciously damages or destroys . . . by means of fire or an explosive, any . . . real property in whole or in part owned or possessed by, or leased to, the United States . . . shall be imprisoned for not less than 5 years.” The key word is “maliciously”: there is nothing malicious about starting a prescribed fire, something that is regularly practiced by thousands of landowners as well as the government itself.
In its opinion on the case, the Ninth Circuit concluded that a 2001 fire (which the Hammonds started on their own land but which escaped to federal land) was malicious because Dwight Hammond’s grandson and Steven’s nephew, who was a 13 years old in 2001, “testified that Steven had instructed him to drop lit matches on the ground so as to ‘light up the whole country on fire.'” This betrays a divide between urban and rural cultures. To urbanites such as the judges on the Ninth Circuit, “the whole country” means the entire United States.
There are no good guys to cheer for in the militia takeover of an Oregon federal office building on January 2. The ostensible issue is the re-sentencing of two Oregon ranchers–Dwight Hammond and son Steven Hammond–for arson, while the underlying issue is federal land ownership of much of the West.
The arson fires lit by the Hammonds in 2001 and 2006 may have actually represented sensible land management, but the Hammonds lost the high ground by their failure to coordinate with the government agency managing the land they burned. Prescribed fire is a tool used to improve wildlife habitat, increase land productivity, and control wildfire. The 2001 fire aimed at improving productivity, but the government says the ranchers didn’t bother informing the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) they planned to burn until two hours after they lit the fire. While they lit the fire on their own land, it escaped and burned 139 acres of federal land, but that fire probably did not do serious damage to the grassland and they put the fire out themselves.
The 2006 fire was more questionable. A wildfire was burning on BLM land near the Hammond’s ranch, so to defend their land they lit a backfire on their own land. That would be standard procedure except, again, they didn’t tell anyone and when their fire crossed over onto federal land it endangered firefighters who the Hammonds apparently knew were located between the wildfire and their backfire. Due to severe fire hazards, the county had a no-burn rule which the Hammonds apparently violated, but this was hardly a terrorist act.
Congress rejected the Forest Service plan to give the agency access to up to $2.9 billion a year to suppress wildfires. In response, Secretary of Agriculture threatened to let fires burn up the West unless Congress gives his department more money. In a letter to key members of Congress, Vilsack warned, “I will not authorize transfers from restoration and resilience funding” to suppress fires. If the Forest Service runs out of appropriated funds to fight fires, it will stop fighting them until Congress appropriates additional funds.
This is a stunning example of brinksmanship on the part of an agency once known for its easygoing nature. Since about 1990, Congress has given the Forest Service the average of its previous ten years of fire suppression funds. If the agency has to spend more than that amount during a severe fire year, Congress authorized it to borrow funds from its other programs, with the promise that Congress would reimburse those funds later. In other words, during severe fire years, some projects might be delayed for a year–hardly a crisis.
Yet Vilsack and the Forest Service are intent on turning it into a crisis. In a report prominently posted on the Forest Service’s web site, the agency whines about “the rising costs of wildfire operations”–that cost not being the dollar cost but the “effects on the Forest Service’s non-fire work.”
A bill before Congress would practically give the Forest Service a blank check for firefighting. HR 167, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, proposes to allow the Forest Service to tap into federal disaster relief funds whenever its annual firefighting appropriation runs out of money. It’s not quite a blank check as the bill would limit the Forest Service to $2.9 billion in firefighting expenses per year, but that’s not much of a limit (yet), as the most it has ever spent (so far) was in 2006 when it spent $1.501 billion.
The Forest Service puts out fires by dumping money on them.
Having a blank check is nothing new for the Forest Service. In 1908, Congress literally gave the agency a blank check for fire suppression, promising to refund all fire suppression costs at the end of each year. As far as I know, this is the only time in history that a democratically elected legislature gave a bureaucracy a blank check to do anything: even in wartime, the Defense Department had to live within a budget.