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What a Fool Believes...
by Todd Ziebarth : Editor, Terrain.org

An Ounce of Unnatural Prevention

In the state where I live, forests are becoming more and more synonymous with fires. According to conventional wisdom, one of the primary culprits of these fires are drought-like environmental conditions—that is, a tinder box of brush and trees created by small amounts of precipitation over several years. These fires often occur in the spring, after yet another extremely dry winter, but we actually had a few fires this fall as well.

From a national perspective, an estimated 190 million acres of federal forests and rangelands in the country, an area twice the size of California, face high risk of catastrophic fire. In 2000, the United States suffered its worst wildland fires in 50 years. Last year’s fire season, which was among the worst in the past four decades, saw 88,458 fires burn 7.2 million acres, an area larger than the states of Maryland and Rhode Island combined. Three states—Oregon, Colorado and Arizona—registered their worst fires in history in 2002.

In response, lovers of the wilderness sometimes ask: What’s the big deal? They assert that fires are a naturally occurring phenomenon in nature. And, while they have unfortunate consequences on the surrounding wildlife, they actually contribute to a healthy thinning out of densely forested areas. Let nature runs its course, they say, and our ecosystems will be better off in the long run.

Well, the big deal is that suburbia is rapidly invading areas that were once considered more natural than man-made. With suburbia, of course, comes not only the construction of homes, but also the laying of an elaborate infrastructure to support these new communities—roads, water and sewer systems, and police and fire departments. Suddenly, that naturally occurring phenomenon known as the forest fire must be unnaturally prevented to protect these new developments. Or does it?

A National Problem

As a city dweller, I am sensitive to the insensitivity of some folks to what they view as city problems. When one’s car is vandalized, the common refrain is: Well, that’s what you get for living in the city. When folks encounter homeless people on downtown streets, a frequent response is: I am glad that we don’t have to deal with those people where I live. And, when people think of inner-city public schools, they often state: I am not sending my kids, or giving my tax dollars, to those schools.

So, my natural tendency is to think similar thoughts about the impact of forest fires on the surrounding dwellings. There are risks to constructing homes in formerly natural areas like forests, and when a naturally occurring event such as a forest fire occurs, a naturally occurring thought is: Well, that’s what you get for building in a forest.

In the long run, though, such self-centered thinking does not serve anybody. As much as suburbanites deny it, city problems aren’t just local problems, but are actually more regional in nature. The same is true of the problem of the convergence of suburban developments and forest fires in formerly natural areas. Not only are people unfortunately losing their homes, but those of us who do not live in these developments are losing our environmental treasures as well. In fact, these problems are not local or regional in nature, but instead are national problems.

What is a Forest without Trees? A Healthy Forest

The current presidential administration recognizes that a national problem exists, but it pushes forward from a perspective that attempts to unnaturally prevent forest fires in order to further develop forested areas. From this perspective, the problem is that these pesky forest fires are threatening new, as well as existing, developments in these areas. Therefore, the way to prevent forest fires is by creating healthy forests.

The first logical question that springs to mind is: What is a healthy forest? Judging from the broad outlines of the administration’s Healthy Forests Initiative, it seems that a healthy forests should include far fewer trees than they currently contain. In fact, the administration’s approach appears to rely heavily on what is termed priority fuels treatment, which is just a misleading way of saying that we need to thin out forests by cutting down lots of trees.

There are several administrative changes that the administration is implementing, such as establishing new procedures that will enable forest-thinning projects to proceed quickly, amending federal agencies’ administrative appeal rules to expedite appeals of forest health projects, and expediting consultation by federal agencies on the impacts that forest-thinning projects may have on endangered species. The administration is also pushing legislation to create several additional policy changes in this area.

Of course, not all of the proposed administrative and legislative changes are off the mark, but the balance between economic development and environmental protection is fundamentally skewed toward the former. If environmental protections are even on the administration’s radar screen, they appear as things that need to be rolled back instead of ramped up. In fact, the administration’s skewed viewpoint in favor of development over protection manifests itself in several other areas as well, such as in the so-called Clear Skies Initiative.

Given the need for growth that is at the core of our economic system, it is tough to balance development and protection. Sooner than later, though, the voices for protection need to reassert themselves in this balance—for the sake of those who build their homes in forests and those who treasure these forests as environmental wonders, as well as for the sake of healthy forests that actually contain trees.


Todd Ziebarth is a policy analyst at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. He is also a founding editor of Terrain.org. In addition to his regular Terrain.org column, Ziebarth sometimes reviews books and CDs for the journal. He has a master's degree in public administration and a master's degree in urban and regional planning.
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