And the Beat Goes On

R.O. Voight

July 13, 1999

The tune sung by the extreme environmentalists reverberates across the land with unexpected results.

In the last week of June several members of Congress and a representative of the General Accounting Office (GAO) were critical of the U.S. Forest Service's lack of action in light of the potential for catastrophic fires in large portions of the western United States. The criticism occurred during a Congressional oversight hearing by the U.S. House Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health regarding a recent GAO report entitled, "Western National Forests: a Cohesive Strategy is Needed to Address Catastrophic Wildfire Threats”.

"Of the 191 million acres managed by the Forest Service, 70% are located in the dry interior of the western United States," said U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-ID), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health. "According to the Forest Service, 39 million of these acres are at an abnormally high risk of catastrophic fire. The GAO calls the region a tinderbox. The problem is an over accumulation of vegetation that can turn what would otherwise be a low intensity fire which in most instances would not hurt large native trees, into a blazing, catastrophic fire that destroys everything in its path."

Chenoweth continued, "The question is, will the Forest Service be able to reduce excessive fuels accumulation on national forest lands in a timely and responsible manner? I have serious doubts because of the points raised by the GAO in this report."

Among the major findings in the GAO report are:

  1. Experts agree that catastrophic fires will prevent the Forest Service from meeting its mission requirement to sustain the national forests' multiple uses because the fires damage soils, habitat, and watershed functions for many generations, even permanently.
  2. The Forest Service has not yet devised a cohesive strategy to address barriers to reducing excessive fuels on national forest lands in large part because it lacks basic data on:
  • locations and levels of existing excessive fuels accumulation;
  • effects on other resources of different methods of reducing fuel accumulation; and
  • relative cost-effectiveness of these different methods, all of which are needed to identify quantitative measures and goals for reducing fuels.

"This hearing should be entitled 'Unintended Consequences',” said U.S. Rep. Don Sherwood (R-PA). "Our current forest management practices, however well-meaning, have resulted in the threat of devastating catastrophic wildfires in the West and rampant insect infestations in the East. It is obvious from the GAO report and the testimony today that road closures, zero-cutting, and ironically, excessive fire suppression have resulted in unhealthy forests. I urge the Forest Service to come up with a workable plan to remedy these problems."

Barry Hill, Associate Director of GAO's Energy Resources, and Science Issues, Resources, Community, and Economic Development Division, testified that "reducing the growing threat of catastrophic wildfires is not emphasized in the agency's natural resources agenda, or in its strategic plan, and top-level management has not been involved in developing a fuels reduction strategy. In addition, only one of the Forest Service's three major organizational areas, with responsibility for reducing fuels, 'State and Private Forestry programs' has been tasked with developing such a strategy."

Hill also testified, "Even though the Forest Service said it would need an additional $37 million in fiscal 2000 to increase the number of acres treated, the agency did not request additional funds and will therefore treat about 60,000 fewer acres next year than it will treat this year."

At about the same time, the end of June, Mike Dombeck, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, at a meeting of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, announced a dramatic change in the direction and policy of the Forest Service in national land use. He announced that watershed health will hence forth supplant all other uses of the forest. That includes timbering, grazing, fishing, hunting, hiking, skiing and all other recreational uses.

This announcement has caused an uproar among the recreational vehicle organizations across the country. This policy further justifies the policy to close access roads into and through the forests under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service. It appears as a direct threat to the recreational industry across the land, including snowmobiles, motorcycles, ATV's , fishing boats and equipment, and on and on.

This all, of course, falls right in line with the Clinton Administration policy to implement the Wildlands Project, and recently to close all federal land to the public, as exemplified in the recent announcement to close 5 million acres in Utah, Alaska, and Arizona. See “The Charade of Public Access to Public Land” by this author. In that editorial it was also announced that Secretary Babbitt was considering using the 1906 Antiquities Act to again set aside land in Montana, Colorado and Missouri.

New legislation designed to ensure public input and a more open process before the President can declare national monuments under the Antiquities Act was approved by the U.S. House Committee on Resources. H.R. 1487 was introduced by U.S. Rep. Jim Hansen(R-UT) to provide for public participation in the declaration of national monuments under the Antiquities Act.

In 1996, President Clinton created the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, setting aside 1.8 million acres of land in southern Utah. Although the Administration had been planning the designation of the monument for months, the State of Utah was not informed until 2:00 A.M. of the morning that the proclamation was signed. Through its oversight functions the Committee subpoenaed documents that show that the Administration used the 1906 Act to circumvent public involvement in public lands decisions and created the monument as an election-year stunt to help Clinton's reelection campaign.

H.R. 1487 requires the President to follow the National Environmental Policy Act and directs the Secretary of the Interior to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement before he may issue National Monument proclamations. Thus the public will have extensive opportunity to participate in the scoping, draft and final stages of any National Monuments decision process.

The juggernaut that is the environmental machine is changing our American culture at all levels. It is surely taking control of our land, of our people, and invading the minds of our children. It is setting mores and values that will affect our people for generations. Some fifty years ago, when a certain type of music was spreading across the country, there was a saying "and the Beat goes on!" That theme seems applicable today.

"That government can scarcely deem to be free, where the rights of property are left solely dependent upon the will of a legislative body without any restraint. The fundamental maxims of a free government seem to require the rights of personal liberty, and private property should be held sacred." - Justice Joseph Storey, U.S. Supreme Court, served 1812 to 1845, appointed by President Madison.

"Courtesy of Scott Fish, AsMaineGoes.com."