Opinion

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Closing Range

Log It Now or Lose It Forever

Extremist litigation has robbed the Forest Service of its best chance to safely integrate fire into our landscape

As I write this, looks like today is the last summer red flag before the rains (and snow) finally come. In some ways, 2017 is strikingly like the critical year of 1910, which had a lasting impact on U.S. Forest Service fire-response policy.

Before the big 1910 blowup, the entire forested Inland Northwest had been pretty much completely smoked out under a hot, still sky for weeks. There were fires everywhere, but nobody knew where they were — and when the walls of fire came roaring out of the smoke, people died horribly.

This year, we’ve got fires at all points of the compass and we’ve been completely smoked under a hot, still sky. But this time, we’ve got the technology — satellites, infrared, aircraft, evacuations — so we know for sure we have too dang many huge fires threatening too dang many communities. My only question is, will 2017’s aftermath be ugly enough to motivate Congress to brain the heck up and actually change federal forest policy for the good?

Greens seem to worry so — Montana’s usual suspects are wantonly slaughtering trees and electrons covering their rears, one after another proclaiming their lawsuits have nothing, nothing, nothing to do with the condition of the national forests in Montana (or anywhere else), and that climate change is to blame.

Well, if it is … if the real idea is to “adapt to climate change” out of an actual desire for a resilient environment, what might be done? Let me put it this way:

Say I grow 100 flats of flowers each season. But “climate change” indicates I’ll get only enough future water to bring 50 flats to bloom. Should I start 100 flats? Heck no, I’ll start 50.

If a forest with 100 trees is only getting enough water to keep 50 trees healthy and growing, how should we adapt? Log 50 trees, right? Environmentalists would prefer all 100 trees die “naturally” through bugs or fire than let any be “exploited.”

What about the record pollution reaching five, ten, even 20 times EPA violation thresholds for fine particulates – why haven’t any environmental groups gone to court over that? Oh, it’s “natural” – and Sen. Jon Tester seems to have fallen for that “natural” fallacy – calling on Congress to have these fires treated as “natural disasters.”

No, Mr. Tester, what is going on is a manmade disaster, more specifically a political disaster, which only Congress, motivated by an irate electorate, can fix properly.

Some argue 2017’s manmade disaster is a lingering result of the “out by 10 a.m.” approach triggered by the 1910 fire season. Really? Then what the heck caused the 1910 fire catastrophe? The Native Americans didn’t have an out-by-10 policy. Logging? Trust me, the Big Blowup didn’t run wild in “old clearcuts.”

The sick and sad truth is, American foresters recognized the need for managed fire in the 1960s and 1970s, something tribal forestry departments never forgot, and agency policy was moving that way. But in the mid-1990s came multiple Endangered Species Act lawsuits over, for example, Mexican spotted owls, northern spotted owls, and right here in Montana, grizzlies, lynx, and wolverines. All across the West, the Forest Service completely lost their ability (through commercial, profitable, self-funding logging) to prepare the landscape properly for a return of historic induced fires (not natural, but historic Native American seasonal burning, which had an enormous impact on the “pristine” forests “discovered” by white settlers). In short, extremist litigation, facilitated by bad judges and worse law has, for at least 20 years, robbed the Forest Service of its best chance to safely integrate fire into our landscape.

Finally, there’s the expense of “fighting” fires, another real problem. Let me ask, of the hundreds of millions spent on fires, what if an equal amount of money had been allocated to “pre-fire-prep” or “fuels management” harvest at the landscape (not pilot-project) scale? Or harvesting the beetle kill that is fueling so many of these monsters, even if it was only for biomass? We’d be a heck of a lot better off than we are. Period.

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