This was why, in 1988, a million acres of Yellowstone National Park burned to the ground as the combination of overgrown forests and natural burn led to catastrophe. The Forest Service changed its policies, realizing it needed to manage forests better. In 1998, the Service calculated it would need about $725 million a year to clear out forests by "managed burns." Bill Clinton's Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt appreciated the urgency of the problem. Following the wildfires of 2000, he said, "These forests are too thick. They're explosive, they're dangerous and the reason is that fire has been excluded for one hundred years and there is too much fuel in the forests, too many trees." In the 1890s, the average Ponderosa pine stand would have held twenty to sixty trees per acre. A century later, it holds three hundred to nine hundred trees.
Yet just as the scale of the problem became clear, environmentalists intervened again. Before the 1990s, commercial logging companies had been allowed access to the national forests for a fee that was placed in a trust fund, something that helped keep the forest service within budget and provided extra funds for fire control when needed. Moreover, logging represents a way to thin forests without the risk of managed burns. Loggers benefit, the forest benefits and the public and taxpayers benefit.
Liberal environmentalists, however, hate the idea that anyone should ever profit from a collectivized national resource like the forests. Throughout the past decade, using the Endangered Species Act and various other legislative devices, they reduced the amount of logging in national forests by some 80 percent. So the forest service's budget was squeezed just when it needed extra money. In 1991, 13 percent of its budget was spent on fire control, but by 2006 that had ballooned to 45 percent as a result of the loss of the logging fees.
The wildfires we see year after year are in fact the result of well-meaning but foolish policies imposed to the detriment of forests, wildlife and people. It is time to cease bowing to the demands of DC-based environmental lobbyists. Otherwise, the forests of the west and those who live near them will continue to be at needlessly increased risk of wildfire.
This article is adapted from Chapter Four of The Really Inconvenient Truths: Seven Environmental Catastrophes Liberals Won't Tell You About - Because They Helped Cause Them, published by Regnery [web editor please insert Amazon or other purchase link]. Iain Murray also writes regularly at www.openmarket.org.
Iain Murray is Vice President for Strategy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. His most recent book is Stealing You Blind: How Government Fatcats Are Getting Rich Off of You