Federal Forest Tinderboxes

By Emord, Jonathan W. | USA TODAY, January 2014 | Go to article overview

Federal Forest Tinderboxes


Emord, Jonathan W., USA TODAY


OVER SEVERAL MONTHS IN 2013, intense wildfires raged in 11 western states, fueled by dense forests and underbrush. The blazes in Colorado and in California were the largest on record. The ferocious wildfire in Arizona took the lives of 19 firefighters. The ones in California's Sierra Nevada and in Yosemite National Park were unprecedented, with some walls of flame running through river canyons at heights over 200 feet. Nearly 3,700 firefighters battled these blazes. Why so many, and why so intense? The answer lies in Federal destruction of private ranches and ranching, and in Federal mismanagement of wilderness lands.

Destruction stemming from the Sierra Nevada fire is feared to present a risk of contamination to the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, endangering the water supply for the 2,600,000 residents of San Francisco Bay. Hydroelectric power and other utilities are threatened as well.

Over the last two decades, the frequency, intensity, and severity of wildfires in Western states have increased, resulting in far more devastation and death to humans and animals than ever before. In 1991, fighting fires accounted for 13% of the Forest Service budget. It now accounts for 40%. The number of Forest Service staff dedicated to firefighting has risen by 110% since 1998. Last year the Forest Service overspent its firefighting budget by $440,000,000.

Wildfires have become commonplace precisely as Federal government efforts to rid the West if private ranching and logging operations have succeeded. The overzealous Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service have driven private companies and ranchers out of the West over the last four decades in satisfaction of environmentalist demands. Logging operations, cattle and sheep, and rancher e elimination of underbrush severely have been reduced. Federal fire suppression efforts have increased year after year, creating dense forests that invite massive wildfires.

Since passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, environmental litigation combined with Federal policies favorable to environmental interests have forced the end of most logging operations, driving ranchers out of existence all across the West. The ranchers that remain spend considerable amounts of time responding to aggressive government demands, which include fines for trespass, ever increasing fees, and prohibitions on use of lands and water rights. The cattle and sheep that once roamed through the Federal lands and cleared the fire-prone underbrush have been forced out, allowing the vegetation to grow virtually without limit.

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