The American Wildfire Epidemic

Posted by & filed under Public Lands.

By Spencer Durrant | TMTB Managing Editor
July 8, 2018


It’s another horrible wildfire season here in Utah.

It’s not surprising, given the drought, terrible winter, and early summer we’ve experienced. I expected a bad wildfire season, and I think most everyone else did as well. The Dollar Ridge Fire — currently the state’s worst of the year — has burned nearly 50,000 acres in a week. It’s only 30% contained as of Sunday morning, July 8th, 2018.

This fire, along with the dozen or so others currently burning, has once again spurred discussion on how to best prevent major wildfires. The angling community is vocal here, as we should be. Wildfires can have a devastating effect on the wild trout we love so much.

But what exactly can we do to prevent wildfires? Well, nothing. The reality is that wildfires have and will continue to occur so long as something to burn is still standing. So the question we really need to ask ourselves is this: how do we mitigate wildfires and their effects on the environment and wildlife we hold to be an integral part of our American heritage?

The most effective answer, as I see it, is to pressure the powers that be in D.C. to make amendments to forest management here in the U.S.

moose wildfireA momma moose and her two calves along the Richardson Highway in Alaska. Photo by Spencer Durrant.

Forest Management

So how does changing forest management directives help us decrease the wildfire epidemic in the West? Well, to understand that, you have to first understand the spiderweb of red tape in which our forests are currently managed. This means diving into the politics of land management and environmentalism. While it’d be nice to think that this is one issue on which partisan politics could be discarded, that’s wishful thinking.

Forest Service Directives

The U.S. Forest Service manages 155 national forests, 20 grasslands, and 1 prairie that comprise the entirety of the National Forest System. Since the Forest Service manages so much land — 193 million acres — they have to adopt policies that are more broad strokes than individualized responses.

On top of that, the Forest Service has to make sure that anything they do is in accordance with at least 12 laws that dictate how America’s National Forest lands should be used. That means each national forest needs to meet the standards of the Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act of 1960, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the Wilderness Act of 1964, and any other law or regulation Congress has passed in the past hundred or so years.

My call for changes to forest management isn’t a condemnation of the Forest Service. While I think we can all agree that most every federal agency is too large, spends too much money, and accomplishes too little, the Forest Service at least tries to maintain our national playgrounds. It’s not their fault they’re hamstrung by the political theater Congress creates.

Looking south from Fairbanks to Denali. Photo by Spencer Durrant. 

The Tragedy Of  Environmental Politics

This call for change to our forest management policies is aimed directly at Congress. Their laws and rules dictate how the Forest Service operates. Federal legislation is designed, by default, to be a one-size-fits-all solution that caters to one party’s demands over another.

For reasons I can’t fathom, public lands has become a political issue. The laws currently being proposed and passed stand to benefit the Republican Party and their interests more so than anyone else. It’s more apparent now than ever in our country’s history that Congress truly doesn’t have the best interests of the American populace in mind.

When I say that the laws being passed benefit the Republican Party, I mean that in the most literal sense. Its leadership, administrative members, and representatives in government will reap the rewards of legislation that allows for broader, unchecked development and natural resource extraction. Those rewards usually come in the form of campaign donations.

And the Democrats aren’t absolved in this matter. Their platform pushes for clean energy, global climate leadership, and an end to dependence on fossil fuels. To pretend that the Democratic Party wouldn’t benefit financially is purposefully burying your head in the sand. Both parties are as corrupt as the other.

Realism aside, those goals are admirable, and if they could be realized, America would be a better country. Yet we’d also see impressive national growth if this line from the GOP platform wasn’t just another talking point: “States, not Washington bureaucrats, are best equipped to engage farmers and ranchers to develop sound farm oversight policies.”

Altruism doesn’t exist in politics. Both parties’ charade of caring about the environment has resulted in the current tinderboxes that are our national forests. Specifically, Subchapter 1, Chapter 36, Title 16 of the U.S. Code shows just how culpable a role political posturing has played in getting us to this point.

“The Secretary of Agriculture shall limit the sale of timber from each national forest to a quantity equal to or less than a quantity which can be removed from such forest annually in perpetuity on a sustained-field basis,” reads the opening lines of this particular law. This is just one of dozens of laws, regulations, and directives Congress has made to impose its own interests on America’s national forests. That particular piece of legislation was added by the 94th Congress in 1976 — a Congress in which the Democrats had a majority in both the Senate and House and Republican Gerald R. Ford sat in the Oval Office.

A view of the mountains bordering Prince William Sound outside Valdez, Alaska. Photo by Spencer Durrant.

How Environmental Politics Causes Wildfires

Now that we’ve covered just how much an an impact Congress and its ridiculous environmental politics has on forest management, we come to the next important question: how exactly is this political theater causing wildfire after wildfire?

The answer is simple. Thanks to gridlock on the issue of public land management, the Forest Service has its hands tied when it comes to thinning forests to prevent large-scale wildfires.

When President Donald Trump signed an executive order in August 2017 that ordered Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review national monuments, critics spoke up immediately about their fears of the return of clear-cut logging to America’s forests. Per the Independent“Critics say this (executive order) will allow the Trump administration to roll back protections that prevent drilling, mining, and logging on the public land.”

When the average citizen hears a line like that on cable news, it’s not hard to imagine them developing an immediate opposition to that statement. Today’s political theater paints everything from the opposite party as dark, evil, and the surefire downfall of the American way of government.

If a Republican Congressional delegate proposes a piece of legislation that would allow for broader logging on national forest land, they’d be lambasted by the Democrats as an enemy of the environment. Conversely, the Republicans would do the same thing. This back-and-forth bickering underscores not only the impossibility of bipartisan legislation, but also the large-scale insecurity with which Congress operates.

The end result is that the Forest Service is left with its hands tied, and the American public is left to foot the bill for fighting massive wildfires year after year.

Fly fishing the Tangle River along the Denali Highway in Alaska. Photo by Spencer Durrant.

Could Logging Reduce Wildfire Risk?

This is a legitimate question to ask, and one that must be considered with an open mind. Again, if we’re to enact real change, then we can’t immediately condemn anything a fellow citizen of a different political persuasion says.

Logging could reduce the risk of wildfires, per The Nature Conservancy’s Oregon Chapter Director Russ Hoeflich. As reported by Earth Island Journal, Hoeflich believes that, “Fire is absolutely natural, needed, and normal in our forests” and blames the “megafires” in the West on degraded forests. Hoeflich supports the thinning of hazardous fuels from forests through a process known as selective logging. “While controversial, commercial logging is an ‘important tool’ to make this happen economically,” the Earth Island Journal article reads.

This view is backed up by research from Dr. Dymtro Matsypura of The University of Sydney.

“The intensity and severity of wildfires can be reduced through fuel management activities,” reads the abstract to his article in the January 2018 edition of the European Journal of Operational Research. 

Conversely, a study published by Australian, Swiss, and American scientists concluded that, “While the effects of deforestation are pretty clear, the impact of selective logging on forest biodiversity is still poorly understood and, most likely, commonly underestimated.”

Research from Stanford backs up that opinion, with one study stating that, “In logged forests, light penetrates to the understory and dries out the forest floor, making it much more susceptible to burning.”

The Druid Complex Fire in Yellowstone National Park, 2013. Photo by Mike Lewelling.

What Do We Do Now?

Conflicting research tells us there’s no easy answer to this question. But one thing is certain — action is better than inaction. Letting forests degrade, through pine beetle infestations, overgrowth, and limited use of prescribed burns, has led to the current American wildfire epidemic. At the very least, we know we can’t let things continue as they have. Wildfires will only get worse with time if we don’t take some sort of action.

What that action is shouldn’t be decided in Washington, D.C. The power brokers don’t understand what our forests mean to us. Instead, we need to speak up to local Forest Service and state congressional delegates. We need to let them hear our voice, and we need to make some sort of move on this problem is we want to avoid burning the West to the ground.

When we leave party affiliations behind, the American people are a force far more influential than big oil or high-tech clean energy companies.

Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. He’s the Managing Editor of The Modern Trout Bum and Owner/CEO of Cutthroat Creative Media. Spencer’s work has appeared in multiple national publications including Field & Stream, Sporting Classics, American Angler, the Associated Press, and TROUT Magazine. Connect with him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.