Destruction of the West: Who’s to blame?
“We have some 73 million acres of national forest lands at risk from wildland fires that could compromise human safety and ecosystem integrity…. The situation is simply not sustainable—not socially, not economically, not ecologically.”
— Chief Dale Bosworth, U.S. Forest Service, 2003
Dale Bosworth, former chief of the USFS, may have recognized the problem in 2003, now, 12 years later, this situation has become even more ominous, according to a comprehensive special report in RANGE magazine. In explicit detail, the overview reveals the bureaucratic failures that are killing people and destroying homes, livelihoods, lands and wildlife, and the efforts by special-interest groups to block solutions—and in the process make money at taxpayers’ expense.
RANGE, which concentrates on commonsense solutions to problems affecting people who produce food for 300 million Americans, was recently awarded a third consecutive Freedom of the Press award.
During 2015, throughout the West, local, state, and federal resources became overwhelmed, and by mid September, more than 8.8-million acres had burned—three times the acreage compared to 2014. Drought is a contributing factor, but the loss of life and charred landscapes can be traced directly to federal policies put in place from the 1990s to the present that are annihilating the West.
The lack of government land management has also given special-interest groups the means to pursue their own agendas with endless, time-consuming lawsuits and appeals. Inexplicably, each time federal agencies lose or settle a lawsuit, taxpayers are forced to reward the groups with Equal Access to Justice Act funds—thus “rewarding” them for their part in a deadly situation they helped create. Money needed to file their next lawsuit.
“Firefighting on federal land has become a big business with little incentive to put fires out early but, as with everything else, if it doesn’t make common sense, then follow the money,” writes Judy Boyle, one of the report’s three authors. Boyle is an Idaho state legislator and former natural resources director for Congressman Helen Chenoweth-Hage. The two other contributors include Andrea Scott, a southern Idaho writer who looks at the aftermath of wildfires, and range-management expert Steven H. Rich, who reports on the lessons not learned from the nation’s first mega-fire in Arizona that killed six firefighters, burned 24,000 acres and destroyed 63 homes in June 1990.
Boyle cites a series of operational failures by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS)—misjudgment that led to horrific destruction. She reports:
Owyhee County, Idaho: On Aug. 10, 2015, first responders and ranchers fought a blaze for 36 hours, containing it to 640 acres. The BLM arrived to mop up, sent the volunteers home, pronounced the fire was out, only to have it blow up into the largest in the nation at the time, devastating more than 285,000 acres.
A lightning strike in Canyon Creek near John Day, Ore., was fought by local ranchers and contained at 200 acres. When the federal government took over, the fire eventually threatened the towns of John Day and Prairie City, destroying ranches, 26 homes, cattle, and wildlife over 105,000 acres.
Federal workers were called to assess the situation northeast of New Meadows, Idaho, when lightning struck a large yellow pine tree. They didn’t extinguish the blaze and simply left. During the night, the tree burned in half, rolled down the mountain, and spread the fire. The result was the TeePee Fire, 94,000 acres, which threatened the towns of Riggs and New Meadows, jumped the Big Salmon River, and trapped rafters upriver, and obliterating valuable resources and wildlife.
In Montana, the governor protested to the USFS when state firefighting helicopters were refused permission for an initial attack on the North Fork Fire. Those Montana experts were forced to remain on the ground watching the devastation until federal helicopters arrived—four hours later. The state helicopters could have been there in 30 minutes.
Boyle summarizes, “With more than 50 percent of the West in federal holdings (only four percent in the East), Congress and agencies in gridlock, and judges and environmental [special-interest] groups taking over federal-land management, hope of preventing future massive fires is bleak, without serious radical change. Currently, there is little incentive to return to commonsense management of our God-given natural resources with which the American West has been blessed. Those who live on and with the land have understood and practiced stewardship for generations.
“There are intelligent, honest environmentalists who truly want to do what is best for the natural landscape,” she writes. “Then there are those whose real motives are the removal of man. The founder of Western Watersheds Project often publicly stated that his motive was to end ranching in the West. Other groups worship creation rather than the Creator, believing nothing should be touched by man.
“If they must destroy the natural environment to accomplish their goal, so be it,” Boyle writes.
A digital version of the detailed Special Report, “Destruction of the West,” can be found by visiting RANGE’s home page at http://www.rangemagazine.com.