The Forest Service’s Big Burn

by Jeffrey St. Clair And Alexander Cockburn

If you believe what the Forest Service interrogators say, Terry Lynn Barton started the big fire in Colorado’s Pike National Forest by burning a letter from her estranged husband. Maybe so, and possibly the jury will be forgiving when they hear more details of Ms Barton’s married life. But a jury might well be equally forgiving if it turns out Terry Lynn started the fire by setting fire to her pay stub.

After 18 years of dedicated service Terry Lynn Barton’s monthly pay was $1,485, which tots up to $17,820 a year. Try raising two kids on that in the greater metropolitan area of Denver. She’s being described in the press as “a Forest Service technician” which is FS-speak for all-purpose manual laborers cleaning up campgrounds, trail maintenance and kindred grunt work.

Forget the Edward Abbeys, Jack Kerouacs and Gary Snyders of the forest fire watchtowers, turning out literature while communing with nature and scanning the ridge lines for tell-tale plumes. The Forest Service, part of the USDA, has long been notorious for exploiting its bottom-rung workers more than any other agency. The laborers are often forced to live in squalid housing under fairly harsh conditions with scant benefits.

These grunts are the ones who have to deal with visitors angered at having to pay as much as $40 in annual passes for visits to forests in a particular area. Having ponied up the money these visitors often find nature’s temple criss-crossed with logging roads, scarred by clear cuts or the new, RV friendly rec sites blessed by recent administrations.

From the anguish and outrage of Barton’s superiors you’d think that you’d think that that the Forest Service has always regarded fire as the devil’s work.

A little perspective: this particular Colorado fire has so far burned through something over 100,000 acres. The implication is that all these acres are blackened zones of ash and carbonized stumps. Not so. Many of those acres will have suffered minor scorching. And of course healthy forests need fires as a natural and frequent catalyst to regeneration, particularly in the conifer forests in Colorado.

But the Forest Service’s policy has been to suppress fires. In the middle and long term this policy leads to huge fuel loads which, when the inevitable conflagration does come, then burst out into the kinds of large scale burns that we are now seeing across the West.

Responsibility for fires stretches far higher up the bureaucratic chain than poor Ms Barton. Since the days of Gifford Pinchot the Forest Service has seen fire-suppression as a sure way to get a blank check from Congress. Fire-suppression gets the Service the big ticket items, planes, helicopters and so forth. Fire suppression is used to justify the Service’s road building budget and even logging programs.

The Forest Service says all fires are bad and need to be suppressed with the help of huge disbursements from Congress plus public vigilance. All children have the ursine, self-righteous smirk of Smokey the Bear dinned into their psyches, said bear being conjured into icon status 60 years ago after the incredible popularity of that noted fire-fugitive, Bambi.

So the Forest Service needs fires, and diligently sets them each year, under the rubric, Controlled Burn, or Prescribed Fire. These regularly surge out of control, as in the Los Alamos forests a couple of years ago, started by the Park Service in Bandolier National Monument. The Forest Service bigwigs okay fires and then summon ill-paid fighters to do the dangerous work. Far more prudent would be to let the fires run, but that of course would leave idle all the costly fire-fighting machinery and expose the Forest Service to the wrath of the real estate industry, which has raised million dollar homes in areas certain to see a blaze some day.

Terry Lynn Barton faces twenty years in prison while the timber industry licks its lips at the prospect of “salvage logging” the Colorado forests. “Light it and log it,” as the old phrase goes. Once a forest burns, existing restrictions go out the window, the Forest Service offers up 100,000 acres for salvaging, and in go the timber companies, hauling out the timber, immune to environmental restrictions. You don’t think timber companies have setting fires for years, often with Forest Service complicity?

We sure hope Terry Lynn Barton gets a good lawyer. He might start by asking a few pointed questions about her treatment. Is the Forest Service trying to paint as the John Walker Lindh of Colorado?


Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch. Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

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