The overcast sky was a nondescript gray. It didn’t feel like rain. The sun, suddenly peering through the clouds, was blood red. That meant at least some of the cloud cover was actually smoke from distant wildfires.
This has been a summer of fire across the north and west, with massive burns occurring in Montana, British Columbia and Oregon, in addition to dozens of lesser blazes from California to Ontario. While the news has been dominated by hurricanes in Texas and Florida, an earthquake in Mexico and a typhoon in southeast Asia, the fires have burned for weeks, covering much of the U.S. with a cloud of smoke. The little news coverage that has appeared mostly tries to assign blame for the fires on something or someone: climate change, a lack of forest management, drought, lawsuit-wielding environmentalists or some other bogeyman. No doubt, all of these factors play a role in our wildfire crisis (let’s call it what it is), but blame-laying never leads to solving. That requires vision and leadership, which are in woeful short supply within the nation’s political realm.
Here’s what we know. Massive western wildfires have become business as usual across the West. Fighting wildfires consumes 55 percent of the U.S. Forest Service’s annual budget. To date, Congress has been unable come up with a funding mechanism to treat the costs of wildfire suppression as natural disasters, similar to the way the government handles hurricanes. Instead, it dips into the pocket of the Forest Service and takes money that was intended for forest management.
In addition, endless environmental lawsuits around proposed timber sales on western forests have led to a situation informally called “analysis paralysis,” hamstringing professional, science-based forest management. This, along with competition from other timber markets such as British Columbia and the southeast U.S., has led to a steep downturn in the timber industry. The resulting lack of forest management prevents the thinning, fuel reduction and similar benefits of sustainable timber harvest that can reduce fire risk. That said, forest ecologists tell us that simply increasing timber harvest won’t eliminate the growing fire risk in the West due to longer fire seasons and the frequency of drought.
This is why we need real political leadership. Virtually everyone agrees the present situation is untenable. Every year we burn up hundreds of thousands, if not millions of acres of forest at great cost and great risk to human life and property. The Forest Service expends both financial and human resources to fire suppression, which means less work is accomplished on national forests all across the U.S. Instead of providing the leadership necessary to address all of the related to coping with wildfire and reducing future fire risk, Congress treats the Forest Service and other land management agencies like hardscrabble farms, barely providing the funding to maintain a less-than-desirable status quo.
This inept governance, and there really is no other way to describe it, may be the result of partisan dysfunction in Congress. Most days, Congress seems to be little more than a taxpayer-funded theater of the absurd. But it may also be intentional. For those members of Congress who would like to take away our public lands, the failure of federal land management agencies to get their work done gives them the political cover they need to criticize the agencies and suggest that a state or private entity could do it better.
This “the feds can’t manage the lands they have” line plays well to those who believe they stand to gain from getting their greedy paws on publicly held natural resources. And it is music to the ears of the barstool crowd that accepts “the government can’t do nothin’ right” as an eternal truth. Toss in some blame for “radical environmentalists” preventing logging and that barstool crowd will join in with four-part harmony.
Politicians often say what they think their base wants to hear, so none of this is surprising. The problem is the rest of us let them get away with it. After all, anytime a politician starts offering excuses or laying blame for why government isn’t accomplishing its basic mission, what that politician is really saying is “I’m not doing my job.”
This is not to say Congress can somehow wave a magic wand and resolve the nation’s forest management issues. But when the West burns up year after year and politicians seem to be either uninterested or incapable of finding a better way to fund fire suppression and reduce wildfire risks, we should lose our collective patience with their poor performance. Not only are we spending a fortune to fight fires, but the present way of doing so diverts funds and manpower from national forests across the country. For instance, when staff from the Superior or Chippewa national forests here in Minnesota are off fighting western fires, less work is getting accomplished on the ground in our state, such as recreation projects, timber sales or ordinary tasks of forest management. Minnesota’s national forests, as well as the economies of northern communities that depend upon them, suffer as a result.
Pardon the pun, but hunters and anglers are the ones who are really getting burned, because they are often the direct beneficiaries of national forest management. Timber harvest and controlled burns benefit wildlife habitat. Recreation projects may be anything from hunter walking trails to campgrounds to public access sites. When this work doesn’t get done because funds and manpower are diverted to western wildfires, the quality of your outdoor experiences on your public land suffers as a result.
So, if you go hunting on a Minnesota national forest this fall and you see few grouse or deer, don’t blame the DNR or the wolves for your bad luck. Instead, place the blame where it belongs: on your members of Congress. If we don’t demand politicians show the leadership necessary to properly fund fire suppression and improve national forest management, they never will.