Western Fires: Made in Washington, D.C.

BIG SKY, MONT.—From high atop a horse named Cruiser, it’s easy to see what ails so much of America’s West. Above and below an equestrian path in the Gallatin National Forest, pine trees and Douglas firs crowd together like rush-hour subway commuters. Many are shorter and thinner than normal, due to intense competition for water, nutrients, and sunlight. Among these upright evergreens, dead trunks, limbs, and branches litter the arid ground. They are parched white, like the bones of a carcass bleached beneath the searing sunshine.

“This hasn’t burned since the 1940s,” says Ryan Neel, a wrangler from the nearby Lone Mountain Ranch. One well-placed lightning bolt could turn this overgrown hillside into a furnace.

Compare this neglected patch of the federal property portfolio to the practically groomed habitat at media mogul Ted Turner’s 175-square-mile Flying D Ranch, about 50 miles away. Young and old members of assorted arboreal species stand comfortably apart from each other, minimizing fire risk. On this private land, foresters carefully pick trees to sell, and then carefully remove them by helicopter. Despite such costly techniques, Turner Enterprises turns a profit.

“Fire safety is an ancillary benefit of thinning for pest and disease control,” says general manager Russ Miller. “Spacing out the trees makes it more difficult for insects to spread from tree to tree.”

This contrast between public mismanagement and private stewardship recurs across the West. The enormous fires that routinely engulf millions of acres from the Rockies to the Pacific tend to devour federal lands. Washington, D.C. owns, for instance, 29.9 percent of Montana, 45.3 percent of California, and 84.5 percent of Nevada. Excluding Alaska and Hawaii, 54.1 percent of America’s West is federal property.

Actively maintained, private forests usually enjoy health and fire resistance, thanks to deadwood clearance, controlled burns, and selective harvesting.

Southern California’s Day Fire roared from Labor Day through last Monday, charring an area the size of Chicago. Most of these 254 square miles were in the Los Padres National Forest. Years of piled-up kindling, insufficient prescribed fires, and a lack of tree sales fueled California’s fifth largest fire, ever. The bitter irony is that ecologists’ objections to sensible fire prevention fed an inferno that destroyed trees, birds, and butterflies, while choking the atmosphere with tons of the environmentalists’ newest enemies: carbon dioxide and other pesky greenhouse gases.

Between January 1 and October 4, 2003, the National Fire Information Center calculates, 3,159,062 acres of wild land burned. That number has grown steadily. During 2006’s equivalent period, 9,102,776 acres were consumed. Fires also soared from 49,957, during that span of 1993, to 84,214 in 2006’s comparable interval.

“In our area, fundamentally all the fires of any significance are on federal lands,” says Southwest Idaho Resources Advisory Committee Chairman F. Phillip Davis. “Fires on state and private lands tend to be smaller and are extinguished quickly due to access and the thinner, managed condition of the forests.”

To exacerbate matters, extracting trees is increasingly difficult, since fewer places process logs. The Endangered Species Act and other timber restrictions have helped padlock lumber mills. In southern Idaho, for example, mills have plunged from 17 in 1975 to one today.

“That is true across the West, and no one wants to invest in new lumber mills,” says Holly Fretwell, research fellow with Bozeman, Montana’s Property and Environment Research Center ( “Forest policy makes investment riskier because the future possibility of obtaining sufficient timber is dubious.”

Lumberjacks, foresters, and lumber-mill workers are joining other professions, making their skills scarcer every day.
“Within a generation, we could lose the people who know how to manage timber,” Davis remarks. He says 18 fires recently incinerated 320,000 acres of Idaho. On September 7, blazes around Boise gave it America’s second worst air quality, right behind Sacramento, California.

The federal government should permit increased, sensible timber removal. It should encourage “salvage logging,” to clear at least the inflammable dead trees from Western forests. Also, until Washington demonstrates that it can handle its current holdings, Congress should prohibit new land purchases. In fiscal year 2005 alone, it appropriated $255.5 million to expand the Feds’ already smoldering real-estate empire.

To see why the West burns, look east, through the smoke, to Uncle Sam.