With reports that some of the fires in California may have been started by arsonists, some people have speculated that all the fires were set by ecoterrorists. What these accusations seem to overlook, however, is that the nation has long faced a much deeper and more insidious philosophical ecoterrorism.
This philosophical ecoterrorism envisions and strives for an mythical, pre-settlement America — while ignoring the fact that we have 300 million people living here. This philosophy, combined with governmental inefficiencies, has created the conditions under which forest fires flourish and eventually spread out to destroy private property, as has occurred with the most recent catastrophe.
Every one of this month’s 15 major southern California’s fires started on government lands — mainly in the three or four National Forests that stretch 250 miles from Mexico into Ventura County. These are the Cleveland National Forest, the San Bernardino National Forest, Angeles National Forest, and Los Padres National Forest. Also the Malibu fire came down out of the infamous Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. The eighth-largest fire was at Camp Pendleton Marine Base, which is now run largely as an inviolate Endangered Species Preserve.
These fires have burned out of control for a number of reasons. First, the federal government has mismanaged all the National Forests for a century — believing fires were unnatural and evil, the government sought to extinguish at all costs. The Smokey the Bear era — beginning in the 1940s — exacerbated that policy, pushing to stop every fire within 24 hours.
By contrast, the pre-settlement, open, park-like forests naturally were characterized by relatively frequent ground-hugging low-intensity underbrush clearing fires. However, the action on the part of the feds to stamp these out for about 100 years, filled the forests with duff, needles, cones, deadwood, and downed wood, and thousands of small undergrowth trees — what amounts to a tinder box. In addition, these conditions stressed and weakened the entire forest.
Then the nation let the Greens and “deep ecologists” move us from the era of mismanagement into the trendy era of no-management. This idea they dubbed “natural regulation.”
The “natural regulation” philosophy allowed forests to whither and die from drought, over-crowding, insects, beetles, diseases, and eventually fire. Greens and federal bureaucrats accepted this result simply because they deemed it “natural.”
President Reagan temporarily ended the let-burn policy in the National Parks following its ”successful” debut in the 1988 Yellowstone National Park fires, but he was shortly out the door, and the deep Green philosophy was quickly and quietly reinstated.
As a result of the reigning philosophy and its consequent regulations, we now can’t cut trees, thin over-crowded forests, or clear out underbrush. We can’t spray for insects or beetles, and we can’t harvest green trees. We also can’t salvage brown or black trees while the wood is still valuable.
The California government has given the okay for salvage of standing dying/dead brown and black trees, but unfortunately, there is no place to take them.
Green government policies have shut down hundreds and hundreds of sawmills. California sawmills have dropped from the 200 that were functioning 20 years ago, to about 38 today — a 70-percent drop. No one is going to salvage trees if they can’t process them, and the last sawmill in southern California near the end of the Sierra Mountains is on the verge of closing. It’s down to one shift and only enough logs already on the deck to last until June. (The ESA and courts closed all the National Forests around that sawmill because the fisher, a mink relative, may be added to the endangered species list.) If the sawmill closes, the nearest sawmill would be at least 500 miles north.
The green philosophy certainly reigns supreme. But rather than being directed by some “monkey-wrenching” Earth Liberation Front (ELF) activists, it’s advanced by our national acceptance of their philosophy, and implemented by our presidential advisers, Cabinet members, a vast number of the 70,000 people at the Department of Interior, and lord only knows how many of the 30,000 people in the Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture. It’s also upheld by our courts.
Supposedly the passage of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 was going to stop these problems. Many in Congress, horrified by the catastrophic fires in 2000, 2001, and 2002, worked with the Bush Administration to solve the problem in 2003. At the height of the very similar October 2003 southern California fires and after 3,000 homes were destroyed and 17 lives lost, Senator Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) finally agreed to let the Healthy Forests bill go through. But then the Santa Anas fires stopped, cool fogs, rain and snow arrived, and Boxer refused to go to conference. After a month of wrangling, she finally capitulated, and Bush signed the bill on December 3, 2003.
Nonetheless, it didn’t work — just try to use the law. Try to salvage dead trees while the wood is still valuable. Greens will find a judge who will grant a temporary injunction of three months or so — covering the warm season when you can get into the mountains and remove trees. Then snow and ice hit the mountain forests and the standing deadwood has another year to rot and decay, become discolored, and lose value. And you can trust that when the next warm season rolls around, the process will be repeated.
There is a kind of “ecoterrorism” that is destroying America, but it takes the form of green policies. And though it may not be called arson, it’s much worse than the work of some lone ELF disciple.
– Robert J. Smith is an adjunct scholar with the Competitive Enterprise Institute.