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Managing Our Public Lands: A Crying Shame

By Del Albright

Public land managers are no longer able to properly manage our forests and wildlands because of “bad” politics. “Bad” politics come from undue influence by special interest groups who many times use “bad” science to promote their hidden agendas.

Thousands of acres of forests and many homes have been lost in recent years because radical environmental groups have influenced elected officials to buy into their rhetoric and bad science. Crown jewels such as Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park and Sequoia/Kings National Monument have been unnecessarily blackened by wildfire. It’s a crying shame.

Recreationists and homeowners inevitably pay the price. Roads are closed. Forests are turned ugly and black. Restrictions follow shortly after wildfires. People lose their homes because of some wildfire burning off public land onto their private property. Jobs in the timber, mining, cattle and recreation industry are lost at an alarming rate in today’s political climate. It’s truly a crying shame.

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Wildfire is the result of human impact combined with nature doing its thing (such as lightening). We cannot prevent all forest fires; but we certainly can do a better job of preventing the large and damaging forest wildfires that seem to make the news more and more these days. Unfortunately, the radical environmental organizations that influence our elected officials have gotten their way too often. Our public lands are being lost, damaged or destroyed by the power of bad science, false rhetoric, and large campaign contributions. It’s a crying shame.

Forests can be managed in many ways to maintain a healthy and safe environment. Among those are mechanical fuel reduction, controlled burning, herbicide treatments and good timber harvesting techniques.

Large and damaging wildfires can be minimized with good fire prevention, timber management and fuel reduction. However, we cannot expect nature to take its course and keep us safe from fire. We have changed nature by our mere existence. Now we must manage it. To not do that is a crying shame.

For those of you following the USFS policy on the *safe and prudent use of wildland fire*...let me follow up with a little clarification. First off, fire is (can be) good for the environment, especially if based on science.

As a person who was in charge of a major prescribed burning program in California, I can attest to the need to use fire where appropriate. Most wildlife biologists (at least in the west) love to see small, controlled fires burning in areas of potential wildlife habitat -- especially where a mosaic type burn can occur that leaves *gaps* in the burn of unburned fuel. These gaps provide the cover for wildlife that can still enjoy the benefits of the burn (new growth, nutrient release, etc.).

Most, if not all fire managers will tell you that controlled or prescribed fire is a great tool for fire prevention. With fire, we can eliminate large buildups of forest fuels (large limbs on the ground), without burning down all the standing trees. It takes some science to do this, though. But when done properly, it gives us a place where the fuel types change enough to allow fire suppression tactics to stop a major fire, for example. Mechanical thinning and brush control can also aid in this effort. But the tools and authority, as well as the budget to do this must be in place for our public land managers.

So what does this mean in light of the USFS (and the National Park Service) policy that says they will start letting more wildfires burn; and even using more controlled burning to bring the forest back to what some think would be a more natural state?

It means several things. First, in my opinion, it WOULD be a good thing if it were driven by science. It is not. Politics and budgetary deficiencies are driving this major policy change.

*Politics* comes from the President all that way down (and thru the federal bureaucracy staff). It is environmentally driven (by that I mean folks who would rather not have us out there using the public land). It is related to, in my opinion, the current talk of moving the USFS from the Dept. of Agriculture to the Dept of Interior.

Now if you know anything about fire, you probably have already guessed that what has happened in Yosemite and Yellowstone a few years back was a major disaster (and faux pas) in the minds of most fire managers, wildlife biologists, and scientists. It was not the people on the ground – the firefighters – who blew it. It was agency politics.

The Park Service mentality of *let it burn* is a disgrace in my mind. It would OK to let little fires burn the undergrowth or clean up the ground accumulation of fuels; but to let a crowning conflagration rip thru trees that are older than dirt is a crying shame.

Then you add the Giant Sequoia fire situation in CA where these precious, irreplaceable in five lifetimes, trees are being consumed by wildfire, and you really have to see why we should cry in shame.

It would not be unusual for a wildfire to cost millions of dollars to suppress. The Old Gulch Fire, Calaveras County, California, 1992, cost nearly two million dollars EVERY DAY for six days to fight. The Fountain Fire that same year cost over $20 million Taxpayer dollars. I would hesitate to guess at the cost of some of the current fires we’re seeing in the west these days.

We can’t afford wildfires – certainly not ones we can prevent. We need to get politics under control.

In this area of politics, we can't over look the fact that another mandate facing the USFS is the one about closing 6000 miles of roads per year until someone in Washington is happy. And let us not forget the Roadless Moratorium and Roadless Initiative, as well as the trend to circumvent the NEPA process with the use of National Monument designations that took place under Clinton. What a crying shame.

Actually, whether this is politically driven or budgetarily driven, the danger is the same. It would be easy to see how a current revision of a forest plan could start tying these road closures and burns into one package.

No matter how you look at it, if we users don’t get involved, we’ll lose.

Second, it's budgetary. The feds are being cut back. Fact. They are hurting. And whether this is a real budget crunch, or an imposed one, it is still there. A budget crunch is one good way to make a major shift in priorities and policy. Timing is perfect. Less money, fewer people; change priorities. It happens all the time. So one could draw the conclusion that because the USFS didn’t play the game exactly like the Clinton's and Babbitt's of the world would have liked, they got their budget cut so they had to establish new priorities while at the same time receiving new direction from other Clinton appointees at the time. It is a real threat to motorized recreation and resource-based industries.

As the USFS budget dwindles, they will have less ability to fight fire. So naturally, more fires are going to get bigger. They might as well do it on purpose and call it controlled burning (or the safe and prudent use of wildfire) least the public this way won't be at their throat as bad. And with good science, the public land fire managers would be able to keep fires from doing the serious, irreparable damage they’re doing now.

I believe we should support well thought-out controlled burning and other fuel reduction programs (and yes, the temporary road closures that may come with them). But if we're not there in the planning process, the gates will outnumber us before too long.

Something to remember these days is that we need to hold bureaucrats and politicians accountable for their actions. It can be a vicious circle, but nonetheless, when politicians cut federal budgets, folks don't get to go to training like they used to. Experience begins to dwindle. Tools needed to do the job right become less available. Money to properly treat the land becomes too tight. Morale begins to wane. Efficiency is affected in everything that takes place in government. It's all related -- much like our ecosystem.

Further, the year has finally struck when many baby-boomers have reached retirement age. In fact, the largest segment of our population is about to retire -- and those retirements are going to come fast and furious. It has already started.

Fire service managers are some of the first to go as the retirement age for many fire and law officials is younger than other professions. So you have to ask yourself, are these folks taking their experience and knowledge with them? And what happens next?

The answer is yes; many of our most experienced firefighters are retiring. The new folks coming up under them do not generally have the depth of experience and knowledge as the old hands. Relatively new and inexperienced personnel are going to be a much more common sight on fires -- wild and/or controlled.

This is where we the taxpayer should be saying to our elected officials who dictate over many state and federal agencies, that we want qualified folks with experience, doing the right thing for our land. And certainly, we want experienced and qualified fire service folks in charge anytime we're putting fire on the ground or fighting a wildfire. That may not be the case in the near future unless someone pays close attention.

We (the motorized recreationists and taxpayers) are going to get ripped if we don't tune in and be a player. The Babbitt's, Clinton’s, and Boxer’s of the world (and the money behind them) want to see a different world than we do. It's not that we don't want wilderness or beautiful scenery; it's just that they want everything locked up, with no compromise. They don't want to let science rule the landscape or land management activities; they want politics to rule.

That is why I entered the fight. I refuse to let a vocal, well-funded minority rule the landscape. They need us for competition in the halls of congress. We've got to be there; and every little letter helps! Do your part. Don’t let the management of our public lands continue to be a crying shame.

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