Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

The Big Burn
distributed 8/23/02 - ©2002

Extraordinary events don't provide a good basis for public policy.

I've been pondering the truth of that admittedly wild generalization this summer as the US has been hit with a series of massive wildfires.

Two factors have combined to produce these big fires: decades of suppressing all forest fires, and several years of drought. Not allowing any fires to take their course has created unnatural and unhealthy forests. Many forest areas now have vast stands of trees that are far too dense. Thick layers of undergrowth allow small ground fires to flame up into the destructive and fast-moving crown fires that make such dramatic TV footage.

Drought happens on a regular basis. There is little that can be done to reduce that natural part of the fire situation.

The suppression of all forest fires, though, was an intentional US policy decision that grew out of a terrible fire season back in 1910. On August 20 and 21 of that year, "The Big Burn" in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana and Idaho consumed 3 million acres of forest in just two days. (For comparison, that is as much as normally burns in the US in an entire year, and half as much acreage as all of this year's forest fires in the US.)

For a variety of reasons (nicely summarized in a newspaper article at, The Big Burn led the newly-formed Forest Service to an extreme reaction against all fire -- even though the beneficial role of fire in forests was widely known at the time.

Basing over 60 years of Forest Service fire policy in the extreme case of 1910 can now be seen as a mistake. That policy has contributed greatly to the current situation of overgrown forests and extreme wildfire danger. A more balanced approach -- one which allowed for the healthy role of fire --would have been better for the forests. It also would have cost the nation far less in lives and dollars.

In this year's drought conditions, some severe fires are unavoidable. But many of this years largest conflagrations probably would not have happened if the Forest Service had pursued a more balanced policy though much of the 20th century.

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In the face of this year's big fires, President Bush has proposed a sweeping new forest policy that he says is focused on fire prevention.

Rather than trying to put out all fires (this year's experience proves that such a goal is impossible to achieve under current forest conditions), the proposed Bush policy focuses on a dramatic effort to remove fuel from the forests.

Almost everyone agrees that clearing out excessive fuel -- undergrowth, dead trees and overcrowded stands -- is an essential step toward forest health and public safety. There is great debate, however, about the best ways to go about the thinning process.

Some advocate for a heavy reliance on fire, with small controlled burns and allowing some natural fires to run their course -- especially in backcountry areas.

Others look toward various forms of tree cutting as a primary strategy, but there's lots of disagreement about the number, size and location of trees that should be cut.

Over the last few years, some very successful programs have been implemented using a mix of fire and cutting strategies. In several (but by no means all) of those thinning projects, delays in implementation have come from lawsuits filed by both environmental groups and the logging industry.

Mr. Bush's new policy would block most appeals to thinning projects -- especially those with an environmental basis. For the sake of responding to this year's perceived fire crisis, safeguards would be removed that have ensured the consideration a variety of environmental, economic and community principles. Stopping fires -- primarily through logging this time -- would once again dominate forest policies.

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My conviction that "extraordinary events don't provide a good basis for public policy" isn't valid only in questions of wildfires or environmental policy.

The past year has seen the US thrown into turmoil by the terrorist attacks of last September. Growing out of that crisis event, our nation has launched a largely undefined War on Terror around the globe, and has initiated sweeping changes in government structures and civil rights.

I fear that 9-11 will have the same impact on the US's foreign policy and legal landscape that the Bitterroot blaze had on the nation's forests. When a crisis-induced sense of national security overrides all other perspectives and principles -- when totally suppressing one threat is seen as more important than any other consideration -- a dangerous and unhealthy imbalance is created.

I pray that a century of forest management experience can provide good lessons for all aspects of our national policy. While we should not neglect or ignore dramatic crises, neither should we allow them to dominate our policies and perspectives. In our War on Terror, as in our war against fire, may we acknowledge the need to balance many goals and principles.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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