I recently asked our website followers if FEMA might be a better choice to handle the West’s wildfire pandemic than the Forest Service. To read that article, click here.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has a long history of success in handling natural disasters – hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and tornadoes. So why not give them a shot at our godawful wildfires?

Several Forest Service retirees I respect took me to task. We’ve always relied on experts who know more than we know to help guide us, so after considering their comments, I decided they were right and I was wrong.

Although I believe the West’s killing wildfires have become a national security issue, handing this crisis to FEMA was a terrible idea. Not least because it sweeps our two biggest problems under numerous bureaucratic rugs. To wit:

  • A failed bureaucracy rooted in old cabinet-level rivalries involving the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior that date from the formation of the Forest Service in 1905. The event shifted the old forest reserves – now national forests – from Interior to Ag.
  • A failure to manage our national forests and rangelands in a way that balances the careening risks posed by insects, diseases and wildfire.

The solution to the first problem lies in creating a Department of Natural Resources that consolidates all federal lands under one roof. The idea isn’t new but it’s never gone anywhere because federal lands stakeholders have always preferred the devils they know to a new devil they don’t know.

The Forest Service gets little respect from its Department of Agriculture parent because – as my friend Michael Rains has said many times – Ag has always been a “wheat, corn and soy beans” outfit.

If anyone should know this, it’s Michael. Forty-four years with “the outfit,” including many in the Washington office. He’s seen it all from the inside.

The Forest Service is a small blip on the Ag Department’s radar screen. Its’ $5.7 billion 2020 budget was less than five percent of Ag’s $119 billion budget – and 60 percent of for USFS budget is now sucked into the western wildfire vortex, leaving far too little for vital forest restoration work needed to reduce the size and frequency of killing wildfires in dying national forests.

Cabinet secretaries are political appointees who possess what Michael calls “position power.” Forest Service chiefs have none. They are agency employees and, as such, are obliged to face the fire – literally and figuratively – with little authority to do anything to quell the flames.

A cabinet-level Secretary of Natural Resources would have the authority and the responsibility for directing the care and management of all federal lands. It would be his or her responsibility to explain to Congress why more than 10 million acres burned in 2020 – more than in any year since 1910. It would also be his or her responsibility fix this tragic mess.

Ag Secretary, Sonny Perdue, a former Georgia governor and veterinarian, did not. Interior Secretary, David Bernhardt, a former oil and energy lobbyist, did not. Get the picture? We need a Cabinet Secretary who [1] has an affinity for managing federally-owned forests and rangeland and [2] will publicly defend the Forest Service when the anti-forestry cabal is in full throat.

The Forest Service was once the most admired forestry and wildfire fighting organization on earth. It got good at the latter because it was very good at the former. Now the agency is neither and its’ fall from grace has become a textbook example of what happens when forestry’s incontrovertible fundamentals are wrapped in shrouds of naturalness and deceit.

How could this happen? In a word, politics. Enormous pressure from politically powerful special interest groups that oppose forest management and see nothing wrong with the fact that western national forests are dying and burning on a scale unprecedented in our nation’s history.

Now we face a wildfire conundrum: it seems that the harder we fight these wildfires, the more frequently they return, the larger they grow and the more deadly they become.

Many say climate change – prolonged drought and an alarming increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere – is the cause.

Others claim we fought forest fires too aggressively for too long, allowing massive accumulations of woody debris that more frequent but less intensive fires would have reduced to ash with little tree damage.

Others blame mismanagement by a Forest Service that grew too timid in the face of decades of  political pressure from special interest groups that believed federal forests were being overcut – especially in the West’s Douglas-fir region where clear-cuts often spanned hundreds of acres.

The is some truth in all of these assessments. Unfortunately, they distract us from the “what now” answer our wildfire conundrum.

Allowing wildfires to burn unchecked in a nation that loves outdoor recreation seems like a non-starter. Why let raging wildfires consume our forest heritage?

We’ll answer this question tomorrow.