In the 1970s the U.S. Forest Service came to look at fires as a natural part of a healthy forest ecosystem and officially ended its long-standing policy of putting out all fires by 10 a.m. Unfortunately, the policy change was only on paper.
There are bureaucratic obstacles to letting fires burn. In addition, the Forest Service receives a blank check for fire suppression-needed revenue in light of the 80 percent decline in timber sales that occurred in the ’90s. Thus, the Forest Service continues to suppress over 99 percent of wildfires. The resulting build-up of fuel loads, combined with hot weather and drought conditions, has led to another season of catastrophic wildfires in 2002.
Should Oregonians trust the same federal land agencies that have mismanaged the land for decades to resolve the wildfire problem? Oregon economist and Thoreau Institute president Randal O’Toole thinks not. In his timely new study, “Reforming the Fire Service,” O’Toole recommends decentralizing national forests and allowing forests or portions of forests to be managed separately as self-funding fiduciary trusts.
University of Maryland School of Public Affairs professor Robert H. Nelson agrees with the goal of decentralization. He writes, “The people of the West can no longer ignore the need for them to take financial and political control of their national forests in order to promote a higher quality of land management, healthier forests, and greater protection from future forest fires.” As he explains, “Fire danger can only be managed over the long term if people at risk from these fires have a role in forest management decisions.”
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