Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Montana — it’s a geography lesson written in flames that greedily eat the heart out of the Rocky Mountain West. If that sounds too dramatic, come to the New Mexico village of Ruidoso and gaze at one of nature’s hottest quirks: The vacation town is safe, perfectly intact, perched in a crescent of fire just three miles distant. The Little Bear fire around it has so far scorched 44,000 acres and destroyed nearly 300 structures.
In Colorado, Linda Steadman, a 62-year-old grandmother, died when her cabin was surrounded by the High Park fire. As many as 40,000 in nine states have been evacuated from fire danger, making this one of the worst wildfire seasons in decades.
Why? And who is to blame, if anyone? Steve Wilmeth, a fifth-generation New Mexico rancher, targets the U.S. Forest Service and its treatment of wildfire. Not the valiant fire crews who brave mortal danger to save lives and property, but desk-bound managers who violate the agency’s original purposes of providing timber and grazing for the citizenry. He also blames the green purists who have devastated the firefighting infrastructure by driving its crews into extinction.
“When the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964,” said Wilmeth, “there were 70 sawmills in New Mexico. Today there are none. We have zero loggers. The fire roads have all been ripped out to save nature. The fence lines have been torn down. Cattle and sheep that once cleared the fire-prone underbrush are banned. The water systems that foresters once built now run dry in forced disrepair. The firefighting infrastructure that we used to count on has been destroyed by environmentalist lawsuits. Now it’s smoke jumpers and ground crews that walk to the fire, if they can. No wonder it’s out of control. We’ve destroyed the controls.”
Wilmeth’s uncle, Bill Rice, is a 30-year veteran of the Forest Service, who retired from the position of deputy chief for administration.
“My specific concern is how the federal forests got in the shape they’re currently in,” Rice told me. From the 1890s onward, Rice explained, forest policy was to put out all fires. Then, however, the natural open, healthy stands grew jam-packed with fire survivors — more than two thousand trees crammed into a single acre. Nutrients were spread too thin, and groundwater transpired too fast. Only loggers kept the stands open.
When environmentalists sued the loggers out of existence and imposed the “let it burn” doctrine on forest managers, there was nothing to stop the fuel load from growing and waiting for a passing thunderstorm.
Rice said that’s bad management. “The Forest Service is finding that they’re spending entirely too much time policing disasters that are the result of the poor management,” he said.
The era of litigation is turning a corner, said Mark Rey, former undersecretary of agriculture — boss of the chief of the U.S. Forest Service. “After a century of fire suppression and two decades of conflict, we have entered a decade of bigger and more devastating wildfires. You can blame it on too much fire suppression or on the conflict.
“But in the past ten years, about half of all new homes built were in the urban-wildland interface. There are more fires to put out with old rules. There has been no commensurate growth in the primary road network for evacuation or fire control. Communities are struggling to form new alliances with state and federal fire authorities.
“We have all wanted a nice home in the woods,” he concluded. “Now many of us have it, a home in the fire-prone woods. The future of wildfire control is now in the communities, places that you’re not willing to see burn.”
Ron Arnold is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.