The Burning Men 

Forest fires rage in the West while politicians try to turn prevention into pork

Thursday, Jul 31 2003
“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962


If anyone needed more proof that director John Ford understood everything there is to know about politics in the American West, it was furnished when Senators Jon Kyl and John McCain of Arizona flew to their home state to spin legend into fact amid the ashes of Summerhaven, a resort outside Tucson where the season’s first summer wildfire has destroyed gift shops, cabins, hotels and 84,750 acres of forest.

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Standing at a high school near the still-smoking fire in the Coronado National Forest, Kyl and McCain repeated a refrain that has become second nature to Western Republicans, who are using the last few years’ record-breaking forest fires to bring back the old days of virtually uncontrolled logging in the national forests. After the senators predictably promised to work overtime to free federal funds to rebuild the resort town, they implied that environmentalist lawsuits — and other unspecified “administrative costs” — were burning up “40 to 60 percent” of the Forest Service budget and slowing down necessary fire-prevention efforts.

In fact, a study by the federal government’s own General Accounting Office (GAO) showed that only 1 percent of timber sales aimed at reducing fire risk were appealed by environmentalists, and none of these appeals made it to court.

But you wouldn’t know this from watching the TV news, where Kyl and McCain are stumping for Bush-backed legislation that would prevent citizens from participating in decision making on the national forests.

The sad part is that the problem in the forests is real. After more than five decades of fire suppression, an estimated 57 million out of 191 million acres of national forestland are crowded with brush and dense stands of small trees. Fire, which clears out flammable underbrush and thins stands of young trees, is a natural part of the ecology in most Western forests. Today, when wildfires burn, they tend to be larger and hotter than the fires that occurred before humans set things off-kilter.

Despite the podium thumping of Western Republicans, the real problem is the lack of funding for controlled burning and logging small trees, which don’t yield profits to timber companies. Legislation passed last year — called “Trees for Toilets” by irreverent forest rangers — allows the financially strapped Forest Service to sell big trees to pay for fire-prevention efforts and other items, including, yes, toilets. This program, rushed through Congress last year before a pilot project had been completed, creates an incentive for more logging, but critics say it won’t come close to addressing a 50-year backlog of small-tree-and-shrub-crowded forests.

Jay Watson of the Wilderness Society is one of many environmentalists who says that administration officials have starved budgets for fire prevention in areas surrounding fire-prone communities. Watson’s words were echoed by residents of the Summerhaven resort in the Catalina Mountains outside Tucson, where more than 300 homes have been destroyed by the Aspen Fire, named after a trail surrounded by aspen trees. In 2002, the budget for preventing fires in the Catalina Mountains was chopped in half. After a fire burned near Summerhaven, community members circulated a petition asking for additional fire-prevention funds, but all officials could come up with was little more than a token amount. Even now, with fires raging in other parts of Arizona, Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano’s request for $230 million statewide for fire prevention is being ignored.

Environmentalists maintain the real goal of many rank-and-file Republicans in the West is not fire prevention but passing the Bush-backed Healthy Forests Initiative now making its way through Congress. This bill, its opponents contend, serves merely to step up logging on the federal lands under the guise of preventing fire.

One of the bill’s prime backers is Kyl. Kyl, who is usually overshadowed by the charismatic McCain, is emerging as a shadowy but powerful Darth Vader figure in the debate over forest fires. Kyl, who chairs the Republican Policy Committee, has funneled almost $20 million to his pet scientist, Wallace Covington of Northern Arizona University, the nation’s best-known researcher on forest restoration. In recent years, Covington’s work has focused on restoring forests to a pre-European-settlement state, which can include taking out big trees. Critics say that Covington has provided scientific cover for Kyl, who seems determined to restart his state’s moribund timber industry.

Kyl’s friendship with powerful Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) makes him a player in environmental issues, where the conservative but eco-friendly Feinstein often assumes the role of mediator across the aisle. Kyl has made forest fires his cause, and he’s likely to front for the administration’s Bush-sponsored legislation as it rolls on through the summer, fueled by the flames in Western forests.

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