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We the government: Forest firefighting season starts now

By John G. Lankford
web posted January 13, 2003

The smoke settled, the weather turned cooler, the elephants romped in the November, 2002 elections, Senator Trent Lott stumbled and then was pushed, Candidate Al Gore stumbled and then jumped, the holiday season came and went and the troops began gearing up and moving out for Gulf War 2.

And many of us hardly remember when the blazing west of 2002 (and 2000) and what to do about it was a topic front and center in national consciousness. We only dimly recall that rival Republican and Democrat solutions stalled the Senate, each side calling the other obstructionist, resulting in failure of funding bills for the entire Departments of Interior and Agriculture (among others).

The widely-read online Rocky Mountain News did not forget. On January 4 it published a reprise of Colorado's 2002 holocaust in the forests.

An in-depth human interest piece by Gabrielle Crist titled "They Loved and Lost", it is an admirable presentation of the emotional effects the superblazes inflicted on interviewed people representative of many others. It astutely tracks affected Coloradans through the conventionally-accepted loss-response progression, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

But the Rocky Mountain News did not front-page the article for the sake of human interest alone. Denver is a standardbearer metropolis for much of the western United States. The fire issue signaled the incoming Congress that the west considers forest fire abatement a vital issue and expects something -- something effective -- to be done about it now that the November, 2002 elections have diminished Washington gridlock. Two political gangs pointing at one another screaming, "They obstructed us!" will no longer be accepted.

The article is a voice from the west telling Washington, "Unemployment compensation extension, Medicare, prescription drugs, Iraq, Social Security, tax reduction, Korea, what the hell, Iran and all, too, yes, but don't leave us out and 'let it burn' again. 'It' is us and ours, and we vote."

Tracking the Western Governors' Association's comprehensive 2001 work product and a fire-abatement fiat scored by then Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle for his home state only, President Bush on August 22 proposed a Healthy Forests initiative, the substance of which was introduced in Congress. Democrats countered with an alternative proposal. Despite extensive debate, neither passed before the 107th Congress adjourned.

The essential difference between the plans was that Bush's Healthy Forests proposal called for as much cleanup of highly combustible underbrush, diseased timber and deadfall as believed feasible in federal forests most in need of it, using commercial logging companies that would be compensated by being allowed to remove the gleanings and process them into merchantable products. The rival proposal excluded logging companies and proposed to restrict the forest cleanup to buffer zones surrounding inhabited areas, using only federal employees and equipment. Remote forest areas would be allowed to burn if they caught fire.

Included in Crist's story is a brief passage precisely establishing which plan amounts to "something effective." Summarizing the account given by Scott Reeder, chief of the Mountain Communities Volunteer Fire Department, she wrote, "[T]he Hayman Fire was a 200-foot wall of flames racing through the forest.... It jumped highways, rivers, meadows and fire lines."

During 2002 debates, western state Congressmembers added that superfires, unlike lower-temperature ordinary forest fires, glaze and sterilize soil and set large areas up for devastating erosion, which not only ruins forestland but literally soils usable water reservoirs fed by rainwater and snowmelt runoff.

Balked by Congressional gridlock, Bush implemented some aspects of Healthy Forests by executive order, triggering howls of protest from organized environmentalists. But the Initiative cannot be fully implemented without Congressional action.

The Crist story also noted that federal firefighting authorities declined aid from local firefighters. Elsewhere federal firefighters have virtually forbidden local ones and private citizens to battle blazes under up-close-and-dangerous conditions, even when homes and property were threatened, citing safety concerns.

The U.S. Forest Service was widely criticized following the July 2001 deaths of four rookie firefighters caught in a so-called flashover that occurred as a ten-acre Washington State fire exploded into a 2,500-acre inferno. Also, Environmental Protection Authority officials have often imposed limits on methods even firefighters can use to battle woodland blazes.

Under those circumstances, westerners will demand measures most likely to reduce the probability superfires will break out to begin with. Despite convoluted contentions of environmentalists, it has become clear that the Bush proposal is the option most closely approaching the description "something effective."

Bush and the newly-won Republican majority in both houses of Congress are likely to receive emphatic support for the Healthy Forests Initiative from the forest-fire-prone western states. Should opposition continue to stall enactment, that support may well become zealous and virtually unanimous after Fire Season 2003.

Democrats would be well advised to cede the point quickly and move to other topics. Any seeking ways to distinguish themselves from Bush and Republicans on this issue would be well advised to abandon their 2002 too-much position and stake out a not-enough stance before summer, telling their environmentalist supporters, as Senator Daschle did in 2002, to accept it. By fall, reluctant concessions from their side will probably be labeled as repenting of Greenpandering too little, too late.

John G. Lankford is a one-time reporter, retired lawyer and resident of Ambergris Caye, Belize. He has contributed to SierraTimes.com, AldenChronicles.com, Enter Stage Right, RadicalPositivism.org and other online publications.

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