Saturday, November 29, 2008

Partners in Crime

Terry Barton, and not her former employer, the U.S. Forest Service, was solely responsible for starting the Hayman fire in 2002, a federal judge ruled this week. As a result, the agency can't be held liable for a blaze that scorched a vast swath of forest, and more than a hundred homes, in the mountains West of here. And this means certain lawyers can stop salivating.

But I wouldn't so easily let the agency off the hook on the question of what role it played in creating the explosive forest conditions that turned what should have been a manageable situation into a disaster. Barton struck the match, and she's done her time for that act of recklessness. Yet her former employer has dodged responsibility for decades of regulatory malpractice that contributed to the current forest health crisis, of which extreme wildfires are one symptom.

In that sense, the Forest Service is an accessory to Barton's crime. But Barton becomes a scapegoat while Smokey Bear gets away with criminal negligence.

Am I really blaming a cartoon character, who warned kids against playing with matches, for the forest health crisis we’re facing today? Yes, in part.

As the cartoon character at the top, the buck stops with Smokey. Playing with matches in the forest is unquestionably something to be discouraged. But it’s even more dangerous these days, thanks to the simplistic, anti-fire attitudes Smokey long personified, which mirrored a century of short-sighted fire suppression policies by the U.S. Forest Service. Fire is a natural and even beneficial part of the natural environment. But the natural fire cycle was dramatically disrupted in North American a century ago, when good old Smokey and his colleagues began systematically stamping-out every fire that flared up.

That institutionalized fire phobia helped create the forest health crisis we face today, yet neither Smokey nor the agency he represents have adequately atoned for this. They put the focus on blaming errant or stupid individuals who spark the blazes, but the tinderbox conditions were created on their watch.

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt put it this way in the midst of the 2000 fire season. "These forests are too thick,” he said. “They are explosive, they are dangerous and the reason is that fire has been excluded for 100 years and there is too much fuel in the forests, too many trees." Babbitt called for an overhaul of federal fire policy, including taking a more enlightened view of fire’s role in the natural scheme of things.

But the first problem with that is that it’s risky reintroducing fire into an overfueled environment. The second problem with adopting a more hands-on approach is political and ideological. Active management doesn't sit well with green extremists, because it clashes with their non-interventionist ideas about nature -- their belief that man can do nothing but harm in the wild. Thinning the forests would mean cutting trees. And cutting trees, in the eyes of extremists, might reopen the forests to hated loggers and profiteers. Better to let the forests die and burn, according to this warped way of thinking, than to admit that man, having already altered the forest and disrupted the natural fire cycle, might be able to correct the problem by returning to active management.

Of late, agency insiders and environmental groups have been blurring the issue by blaming wildfires, the beetle blight and other elements of the crisis on -- what else? -- global warming. But not that long ago, before climate change became the explanation of first resort for every phenomenon, there was consensus that human factors and policy decisions played a large part in the present crisis. By making fire seem a healthy forest’s enemy, rather than its ally, Smokey was blowing smoke up the public’s behind. But like the bureaucracy he represents, he emerged from the resulting firestorm unscathed, when it all blew up in his face.

Terry Barton has been held accountable for recklessness and stupidity. When will the Forest Service be?

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