As the smoke of raging wildfires filled the skies over the West in the past few weeks, more than a few Americans paused to wipe cinders from their eyes and ponder a common question: Is the federal government really doing such a great job of managing all that land it controls?

Questions about the wisdom of federal forest management are unavoidable in a year when not only are vast stretches of forest being consumed by fire, but the two largest of those fires were apparently set by rogue employees of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Worse, the federal firebugs were drawn from the ranks of those responsible for keeping the forests from turning into infernos.

Forest management has been a controversial issue for years. Fire suppression was the rule for decades, with managers quite reasonably — if wrongly — believing that fires were too destructive to be allowed and must be stopped whenever possible. Only later did people learn that occasional, relatively small fires burned away the debris that might otherwise become fuel for massive wildfires. As the Washington Post recently reported, "The wild lands in the West are filled with dense, dangerous underbrush that helps blazes burn hotter and faster, and that brush is the consequence of a long-standing federal policy to suppress all fires as soon as they start."

Then the pendulum swung in the other direction. Many environmentalists embraced a "hands-off" policy that called for leaving the forests to find a natural balance between fuel and fire. But what that balance is, nobody can be sure — forests across the planet have been managed by humans since long before federal bureaucrats set their minds to determining policy.

Writing in criticism of the "natural" approach, Texas A & M Professor of Forest Science Thomas M. Bonnicksen, author of "America's Ancient Forests," wrote, "This ignores 12,000 years of history in which Native Americans doubled the number of fires by using them as a tool to keep forests open and productive."

The Forest Service in particular has been sent reeling from one extreme to the next largely because it's a rudderless agency. Founded originally as a custodian of American timber stocks, the Forest Service is now torn between commercial, recreational and ideological interests. Timber these days is drawn overwhelmingly from private land, while growing ranks of urban-based weekend visitors want to play amidst attractive greenery and influential environmental groups call for preservation of plants and animals over all other concerns. Large stretches of forest are declared off-limits to logging of even the most restrained sort.

In the wake of the destructive Rodeo-Chediski fires, the Sierra Club and the Southwest Forest Alliance, specifically, were tagged for impeding efforts to thin forests to make them less vulnerable to wildfires. The Arizona Daily Sun editorialized that "At first the groups railed against [a proposed forest management] plan as thinly disguised 'commercial logging.' Then they filed administrative appeals because the partnership had not filed all the required reports … The result was two years of delay."

That delay can be dangerous, as this year has demonstrated. After decades of fire suppression, enormous stretches of federal land are ready tinderboxes for the next spark to land in a bed of pine needles.

What the federal land-management bureaucracies have been doing so far obviously doesn't work. But do they retain the credibility and institutional moxie to try something different?

Robert H. Nelson doesn't think so. A professor with the University of Maryland School of public Affairs, and the author of "A Burning Issue: The Case for Abolishing the U.S. Forest Service," Nelson clearly believes that only major transfers of responsibility will save America's forests.

In an article for the Cato Institute, Nelson endorses widely accepted countermeasures against fire, including "reducing fuel loads" through forest thinning, but he expresses no confidence in the ability of federal land managers to do what's necessary. Instead, he says, "fire danger can only be managed over the long term if people who are at risk from these fires have a role in forest management decisions."

To accomplish this, he sees a need to break the federal government's stranglehold over vast areas of land — particularly in the West. "This policy may, in the long run, lead to the federal government handing the management responsibility for the national forests over to the states."

Experts at the Thoreau Institute reached similar conclusions. Its Forest Options Group, which consists of industry, environmental and Forest Service leaders, suggests a range of alternatives to current forest management, which it recommends be tested in pilot programs over a period of five years.

The group's proposals include trusts that would localize responsibility for managing specific forests. Trustees would retain revenues generated from their forests, and would be geographically and administratively closer to their charges than are bureaucrats in D.C.

Thoreau's experts also recommend that forests be managed by private and non-profit groups. Like trusts, these organizations would have a vested interest in the health of the areas under their control.

The federal government assumed a huge responsibility when it took upon itself the job of managing vast swathes of America's forests located thousands of miles from the nation's capital. Burned homes and scorched wilderness provide ample evidence that federal agencies have not adequately done their job. Proposed reforms may differ in their details, but they generally agree that power over the nation's public lands should be taken away from bureaucrats in D.C. and given to people who have the most to lose when the forests burn.

J.D. Tuccille is a Flagstaff-based Senior Editor of The Henry Hazlitt Foundation's Free-Market.Net (http://www.free-market.net/).

— Arizona Daily Sun

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