The Burning Men

“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.

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.


The so-called Healthy Forests Initiative, introduced by Representative Scott McInnis (R-Colo.) in the House, would eliminate many forms of public participation and environmental review now guaranteed under the National Environmental Policy Act, known as “the environmental Magna Carta.” But the most controversial aspect of the bill is judicial. Not only does it exempt many timber sales from legal challenges, but it also contains a directive to judges to consider “long-term” impacts of logging vs. not logging — a provision designed to favor timber sales. Critics say that the bill itself will land in court if it passes, because it violates the separation of powers.

After sailing through the House of Representatives, the Healthy Forests Initiative is now having a tougher time in the Senate. Feinstein has introduced a rival bill that environmentalists have endorsed. Senators Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) have also introduced a competing piece of legislation. After last week’s press conference, McCain predicted that a compromise could clear Congress this month — if this year’s fire season is as bad as last year’s.

Observers say that much of the damage may already have been done. The real macher in the conflagration over forest fires is Mark Rey, the Agriculture Department undersecretary. Shortly after he was appointed, the former timber-industry lobbyist told senior staffers that the Sicilian aphorism “Revenge is a dish best served cold” was part of his personal genome, according to an article in the Seattle Times. Indeed, Rey seems to be wreaking revenge on environmentalists who dogged his steps when he was a lobbyist.

After the GAO found that environmentalist opposition had virtually no effect on fire-prevention activities, Rey’s staff issued internal reports that contradicted the GAO study. At one point, a staffer “fact-checking” a Forest Service report claimed that 68 percent of thinning projects had been appealed. When environmentalists employed the Freedom of Information Act to see how the Forest Service compiled its data, they were told the research was done in a few hours and mostly by phone.


If Rey has his way, the Bush years may be 1980s retro all over again, with stepped-up timber cutting and lots of lawsuits. Observers like political scientist Jacqueline Vaughn believe that the real target for Rey and like-minded members of the administration is the National Environmental Policy Act, whose provisions ensuring citizen participation — and government accountability — would be truncated by the proposed Healthy Forests legislation.

The ironic part is that the policies pushed by Rey and others are unlikely to solve the problems in the forests. Jay Watson of the Wilderness Society said that most at-risk communities are surrounded by a patchwork of private and state land, which would not be affected by “fire reduction” timber sales on federal land. This is especially true for mountain towns in California like Lake Arrowhead, Big Bear and Idyllwild, which are all on the Forest Service’s fire-watch A-list. Many environmentalists admit that communities like Summerhaven, Big Bear and Idyllwild probably shouldn’t be in fire-prone areas in the first place. Yet the environmental community is fairly united in its support for concentrating fire-prevention efforts around communities rather than in the backcountry, where fire prevention is often an excuse for logging big trees. For one thing, environmentalists argue that studies have shown that fire prevention in what is called the “wildland/urban interface” actually works. Thinning remote backcountry areas is still an inexact science and should probably be done in smaller increments and monitored carefully, according to Chris Wood of Trout Unlimited. One of the savviest observers of the forest-fire scene, Wood got to know the Forest Service from the inside as a senior policy and communications adviser to Mike Dombeck, the Clinton appointee credited with reforming the problem-plagued Forest Service.

Wood agreed that the Forest Service runs the risk of re-igniting its historic emphasis on timber at the expense of conservation. For decades, the Forest Service allowed timber companies to cut between 9 billion and 12 billion board feet of timber a year, until lawsuits forced the count down to about 2 billion board feet. These days, Wood estimates that three-quarters of logging in the national forests is being done under the rubric of fire prevention.

If the bill passes Congress without substantial changes, timber sales cloaked as fire prevention will be virtually unstoppable because of provisions aimed at giving the Forest Service power to micromanage judicial decisions, Wood said. “I’m not a screaming environmentalist. But politics has totally intercepted the debate. Now the question seems to be ‘How quickly can we cut out the greatest number of people and eliminate environmental analysis and roll on with logging projects?’ It’s mind-bending that Congress is seriously considering this.”

Perhaps Congress needs to listen to the people in the Forest Service itself. McCain violated the Beltway code of deniability when pressed to defend his statistics at a press conference. “I got it from myself and, uh, the Forest Service,” McCain snapped when this reporter questioned him. “The Forest Service will confirm the fact that 40 to 60 percent of its budget is devoted to working on the environmental issues.” McCain called on John McGee, the supervisor of the Coronado National Forest, to back him up.


McGee, appearing a bit embarrassed, stepped up to the podium. The forest supervisor said that the existing setup could stand some streamlining but allowed for effective give and take between citizens and government. It is, McGee said, “a good process that resulted in good decisions.”

McCain is admired in Arizona, even among people who disagree with his conservative politics. Nobody had the heart to take the hero of campaign-finance reform to task for helping pork-barrel politics run wild in the national forests.

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