Their View: Status quo of charred homes not good enough

Jul 6, 2012

"When we leave forests to nature, as so many people today seem to want to do, we get whatever nature serves up, which can be pretty devastating." — Tom Tidwell, Chief of the US Forest Service

The largest wildfire in state history and the most destructive fire in state history both ignited within a month of each other, and could have been prevented. Both started as small, containable fires. However, both burned out of control, despite the great efforts of the men and women combating the blazes. I have always held our first responders in the highest regard, and will always do so.

Unfortunately, Washington regulations and special interest lawsuits stood in the way of commonsense forest management and fire fighting. And now more than 240 homes destroyed. Some say this status quo is perfectly fine. Policies that destroy our homes and our environment are not sensible in any way, and I think New Mexicans agree.

On May 17, eight days after the discovery of the Whitewater-Baldy Fire, it had burned less than 800 acres. According to the U.S. Forest Service's (USFS) May 17 report, the Baldy Fire, which merged with the Whitewater Fire, fire was "achieving fire's natural role in the wilderness." Today, the fire has burned nearly 300,000 acres — 2.5 times the size of Albuquerque — destroying animal habitat, changing the chemistry of the soil, and polluting the air with clouds of smoke that alarmed federal officials so much that they recommended people as far away as Albuquerque stay inside their homes to avoid inhaling it. Twelve homes were destroyed.

On June 4, the Little Bear fire was discovered in the Lincoln National Forest. After its discovery, it was less than four acres for about four days before it blew out of control. In that time, the area could have been saturated with water, slurry or multiple fire teams to stamp it out. Fire fighters from surrounding communities were not allowed to help control the fire. Today, more than 44,000 acres have been destroyed, along with 242 homes. This is a travesty that could have been prevented with proper forest management.

Some attribute these fires to "slashing" funds. The fact is USFS has received a $250 million increase in funding since 2007. Washington insiders and those with a radical agenda call an increase of a quarter of a billion dollars "slashing" funding, but New Mexicans know better.

The reality is that proper forest management would have allowed quicker control of the fires, reduced damage and destruction to forests, people's property, economic loses and health problems for many citizens. These fire losses did not have to happen! Proper forest management is what we see on the Mescalero Apache Reservation, just a few miles from the Little Bear Fire. On the Mescalero Reservation, the forests are thinned, and once a fire reaches the reservation, it sinks to the ground, burns the underbrush, can be easily controlled and the forest thrives. Those of us who have actually traveled through southern New Mexico see large, healthy trees on the reservation — hardly the "clear-cutting" that radical groups characterize forest management as.

A great example of one of these radical groups is the WildEarth Guardians, who filed a lawsuit to stop forest thinning in the Gila National Forest. The result of this lawsuit has been thousands of acres of charred soil that will not grow trees for a century and the deaths of countless animals. The Spotted Owl cannot live in a charred, desolate moonscape. Bonito Lake, which is the main water source for Alamogordo, is now polluted with debris. WildEarth Guardians and others sitting in ivory towers call this progress. I call it unforgivable environmental degradation.

If you don't believe me, just look back to Chief Tidwell, where he told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on June 14, 2011, "We can't do a damned thing without risking lawsuits that would rather see the nation's forests left to nature's vagaries." During a meeting last week with Chief Tidwell, he echoed these sentiments, as he did in another private meeting more than one year ago. Some individuals and radical groups are content with this. New Mexicans are not.

A select few believe that muttering a platitude and catering to a few special interests is good forest management policy. I think those who lost their homes in these preventable fires would disagree. Those who saw the rampant destruction of nearly 350,000 acres of wildlife habitat would vehemently disagree. Those who see that new trees will not grow a new forest for at least a century because of these bad policies would disagree. Those of us with common sense would disagree.

Steve Pearce represents New Mexico's Second District in the U.S. House of Representatives.