As a record wildfire continues to rage in Arizona and others pop up around the West, a popular topic of conversation is whom to blame. The general consensus is that at least a century of U.S. Forest Service must be at fault, because the government is always wrong or so the story goes.
Its true that past forest management decisions have not always served to minimize fire danger. That fact makes sense for several reasons. Fire danger is only one consideration among many. Forestry has changed a lot in the past century, and the science behind it has developed significantly. Fire suppression may well have been a mistake in many instances, but blaming modern forest managers for their predecessors actions is nonsensical. Hindsight always seems crystal clear, but its not always entirely honest. The Forest Service has hardly been ignoring the problem.
A more productive activity than recreational finger-pointing would be scientific meaning factual, not political analysis of what has worked and what hasnt. No one, in or out of government, believes that paying armies of firefighters is the optimal use of scarce land-management resources. Beyond that, though, identifying a solution is hardly as easy as studying what the USFS has done for the past 100 years and then reversing course. A whole lot else has changed, and theres no going back to the way things were.
A way forward must be devised to balance public and private interests and take into account modern realities. Forest uses are changing. The population is changing as well as growing. In 2011, more people want to use the wildlands, and theyre using them for different, not to mention competing, pursuits. The truth isnt nearly so simple as saying, If the Forest Service would just approve timber sales, the forest wouldnt burn, wed have lots of roads and everybody would be happy.
Even if public lands policies changed today, they could not be immediately effective in reducing fire danger across the entire West. Presumably mitigation practices would begin in the highest-risk locations, but the federal government manages 650 million acres of public land in Colorado alone. Judicious timber harvesting might also help (and has), but little construction is taking place right now, and few Coloradans want to see clearcuts in live timber. The millions of acres of insect-killed trees are another story; is the public willing to pay to see them cleared when the demand for beetle-killed lumber is far smaller than the growing supply? And who in the private sector will want to manage millions of acres of oak and other trees that will never make dimension lumber?
For that matter, is the public willing to see forest access shut down during dry summers to prevent conflagrations caused by errant campfires and other sources of fire, including vehicles and smoking? Factors such as fuel moisture are beyond anyones control, so preventing fires from getting started in the first place is the best way to keep them from growing out of control.
Forest thinning and fire-protection practices in eastern Arizona have worked well to safeguard homes and other structures from the advances of the Wallow Fire. Those techniques have been widely publicized and proven to help, but people want to live and recreate in the trees. Is it the governments job to convince them otherwise, or mandate firebreaks? Thats a fair question, especially in the current political climate.
All of the potential solutions will cost money lots of it, because of the breadth of the landscape at risk. If Congress isnt willing to approve big public-lands expenditures for many years into the future, a little prevention and a lot of firefighting may be all the Forest Service can do. That wont be enough to save western forests. This nations public lands are a resource far too valuable to be allowed to burn up while Americans argue.