In a continuation of a tragedy that has been going on for decades, catastrophic wildfires – some of them in forests, others in grasslands – are ravaging flora and fauna throughout the American West.
Whether caused by a lightning strike, a carelessly thrown-away cigarette, or failure to trim vegetation around power lines – most of these conflagrations occur on federally managed – or mismanaged – land under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management.
How bad is it this year? Here’s a compilation by the Public Lands Council as of August 7:
Number of new large fires or emergency responses: 10
Number of active large fires: 93
Acres consumed by active fires: 1,720,079
Fires contained: 1
Western states currently reporting wildfires:
New Mexico 5
New Natural Resources Management Strategies Needed
In his July 18 testimony before the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, Greg Walcher pointed to a long history of gross mismanagement by federal agencies as being responsible for the West’s giant wildfires. Walcher is president of the Natural Resources Group, LLC, senior policy fellow at E&E Legal, and the former executive director of Colorado Department of Natural Resources.
“In the wake of the catastrophic fires that have devastated more than 100 million acres of national forests in the past 20 years, there ought to be even greater attention to federal management strategies that have utterly failed to maintain and enhance these priceless resources,” he told lawmakers. “Ecosystems should be managed by people living in the area, and who by definition know the ‘landscape-scale’ issues best. A far better approach to the crisis of federal land management would be to further empower state and local decision-making, consistent with national priorities.”
His thoughts are echoed by Montana State Senator Jennifer Fielder, who is also CEO of the American Lands Council. In a presentation at the Heartland Institute’s July 25 International Climate Change Conference in Washington, D.C., Fielder showed side-by-side aerial photographs of federally managed forests and forests managed by private landowners. The federal forests are characterized by diseased, drying, and dead trees, while the private forests are healthy and resilient.
Trees struggle to survive in hopelessly overgrown federal forests, which are tinderboxes ready to go up in flames with the next lightning strike, she told the audience. Unlike on private land, where problem trees are regularly culled, little if any thinning takes place under federal management, with catastrophic consequences. Federal land-management bureaucrats, often in league with environmentalists, have closed many roads in federal forests, making it all but impossible for fire-fighting crews to put out the flames once the inevitable wildfires break out, she explained.
“Neglect Isn’t Protection”
Much of this is done in the name of “protecting” the forests, but this hands-off policy is self-defeating. “Neglect isn’t protection,” she pointed out. Indeed, these giant wildfires kill trees and other vegetation, burn animals alive, and pose a lethal threat to local communities. Smoke is picked up and carried hundreds of miles by prevailing winds causing air quality to deteriorate to the point where it puts vulnerable populations at risk.
Like Walcher, Fielder advocates transferring federal lands to the states in which they are located, believing that the best stewardship is done at the local level, not by bureaucrats in far-away Washington, D.C.