Federal Forest Fire Policy: Powerful Environmentalists, Hurting the Environment

Erika Johnsen

5/13/2012 9:37:00 AM - Erika Johnsen

My problem with 'environmentalists' isn't that they want to protect the planet -- it's a very admirable goal, and as an avid outdoorswoman myself, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone more interested in preserving America's pristine landscapes than myself. My problem with environmentalists is that they are usually woefully misguided on the best methods of accomplishing that goal. Environmentalists are almost unfailingly liberal urbanites and suburbanites who follow the in-vogue eco-trends as dogma, fancying that the marketing campaigns telling them that carrying a reusable shopping bag does something at all meaningful to help the environment without doing any of their own research or critical thinking into the matter.

They imagine that top-down, big-government mass dictates are the most efficient and effective way to combat environmental degradation, when in reality, the many artifices of big government are some of the environment's worst offenders. True conservationists, who actually know a damn thing or two about how ecosystems work, understand that a slow-moving bureaucracy operating with imperfect knowledge and politically-influenced fiat does a reliably poor job of environmental stewardship.

Federal forest-fire policy, for example, has inflicted terrible harm upon the temperate deciduous awesomeness that is America's wildnerness, as the LA Times reported this week. Environmentalists tend to think that the more trees you have, the better, and that if you just leave forests be, they'll thrive on their own through time immemorial. That couldn't be further from the truth, but the environmentalist-laden Department of Interior continues to drag its feet on logging permits, at the expense of both unemployment in the timber industry and water scarcity in the West.

Ronald Reagan once justified logging with "a tree is a tree; how many more do you need to look at?" Besides, he warned, "trees cause more pollution than automobiles." We cringed at his biases. Yet due to forces none foresaw, Reagan's gaffes may now ring true.

Today, the hottest and thirstiest parts of the United States are best described as over-forested. Vigorous federal protection has stocked semiarid regions of public land with several billion trees too many. And day after day these excess trees deplete a natural resource that has become far more precious than toilet paper or 2-by-4's: water.

Scientists and water managers report that 39 states face water scarcity. Much of the nation's freshwater shortfall comes from our population growth, waste, hunger and contaminants. But we must also now implicate the escalating thirst of unnatural forests.

Water depletion from afforestation — the establishment of trees or tree stands where none previously were — is the unintended consequence of a wildly popular federal policy. For millenniums, fires set by lightning or Native Americans limited forest stocks to roughly a few dozen trees per acre. All that changed after the nationally terrifying Big Blowup wildfires of 1910, which led the United States to in effect declare war on wildfire. The government's wartime-like tactics included security watchtowers, propaganda, aerial bombing and color-coded threat alerts. Uncle Sam trained elite Hotshot and Smokejumper crews to snuff out enemy flames. Congress annually funded the war effort with an emergency blank check, now $2.5 billion.

Decades of heroic victories against fire led to gradual defeat in the larger war. Fuel builds up, and when it ignites, the fires burn hotter, faster and more destructively. More new trees compete for less sunlight, thinner soil nutrients and scarcer water resources. Native wildlife suffers. Insects and diseases spread faster. Public subsidies protect private properties at the wildland-urban interface.

...But as temperatures rise, too much forest strangles too many watersheds. To replenish streams before they dry up, we lifelong tree-huggers must learn when and where to let go.