The massive wildfires ravaging forests, ranchland, farmland, and private homes in the West have also taken a heavy toll on human life. So far this year, 11 people have been killed fighting the gigantic blazes, according to federal officials.
Wildlife, livestock, and the region’s natural beauty have all fallen victim to the blazing infernos. A wildfire that burned across eastern Oregon and southern Idaho consumed 300,000 acres of rangeland. In neighboring Washington, state officials report that wildfires have scorched 235,000 acres, destroying 50 homes and 60 other structures.
In the semi-arid, windswept West, wildfires are a common occurrence and can even be beneficial. By burning underbrush and smaller trees, for example, wildfires can contribute to healthier forests. But the conflagrations plaguing the West don’t come from Mother Nature; they are the result of gross mismanagement of public lands by the federal government, notably the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
“Outdated environmental laws and regulations”
In an August 17 letter to President Obama, Brenda Richards, president of the Public Lands Council, and Philip Ellis, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, put the blame on this summer’s destructive wildfires squarely on the “severe mismanagement of federally owned forests and rangelands, due to outdated environmental laws and regulation along with the abuse of the legal system by radical special interest groups.”
They noted that, by some estimates, over 82 million acres of overgrown USFS forestlands “are at elevated risk of catastrophic wildfires, insect, or disease outbreaks.” According to the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee, California’s national forests currently average 266 trees per acre on a landscape that has historically sustained just 20 to 100 trees per acre. “This has led to stressed trees prone to disease, pestilence, and catastrophic wildfire,” Richards and Ellis added.
Increased funding not the answer
According to the Agriculture and Interior Departments, there are currently 19,000 interagency personnel fighting wildfires in 13 states. The National Interagency Fire Center puts the number of wildfires this year as of August 10th at 39,609 and the number of acres burned at 6.5 million, 38% higher than normal. The USFS alone has spent $671 million this year suppressing wildfires. The administration’s response to all this is, predictably, is to seek to increase funding for fire suppression.
Money, however, isn’t the answer. The national forests are tinder boxes because they are overgrown. They are overgrown, because they are mismanaged. They are mismanaged because laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and litigation by environmental groups do not allow for the timely removal of dead and diseased trees or for the harvesting of enough timber to keep national forests resistant to conflagrations.
Livestock grazing on BLM lands has been reduced by as much as 50% since 1971, while the timber industry in the West has undergone a steady decline – “all almost entirely due to federal laws and regulations and predatory environmental groups,” Richards and Ellis wrote the White House. “The result is the accumulation of fuel which causes catastrophic fires which are causing lasting harm to forest ecosystems and Western communities – the watershed, wildlife, air quality, rural communities, and the taxpayers are all negatively impacted,” they added.
The Obama Administration isn’t going to lift a finger to undo the harm the USFS, the BLM, and environmental groups are doing to Western forestlands, rangelands, and rural communities. This, after all, is the same Obama White House that has turned a blind eye to the EPA’s toxic spill into a river system in the Southwest. Instead, the White House and its environmentalist allies continue to cite “climate change” as the leading cause of the wildfires. The West is, in fact, undergoing a severe drought. But droughts, including severe ones, are the norm in the West, and the region’s inhabitants have historically sought to adapt to whatever good or bad weather Mother Nature serves up. The real problem is incompetent Washington bureaucracies that lord over hundreds of millions of acres of federal land in the West.
“Tragedy of the Commons”
Stewardship is best exercised by those who will be rewarded for prudent decisions and punished for imprudent ones. Federal land managers have absolutely no stake in the vast empire they oversee; they get paid regardless of what happens. Divesting the federal estate to private ownership, and putting an end to the “tragedy of the commons,” is the only way to liberate the rural West from Washington’s ineptitude.