Just a Match Away

Sooner or later all big fires become political events.

Even before becalmed Santa Ana winds and mountain sleet quenched the blazes in southern California, politicians from both parties raced to exploit the charred landscape for their own advantage–a kind of political looting while the embers still glowed.

Republicans, naturally, pointed an incendiary finger at environmentalists, rehashing their tired mantra that restrictions on logging had provided the kindling for the inferno that consumed 3,600 homes (largely in Republican districts) and took 20 human lives (the non-human body count will never be tallied).

Not to be outdone, Democrats parroted a similar line, but in more bombastic tones. They tried to affix the blame on Bush, alleging that our chainsaw president had rebuffed desperate pleas from Gray Davis for money to finance the logging off of beetle-nibbled forests in the parched San Bernadino Mountains.

So here the two parties converge once again, harmonized in their fatuous contention that more logging will prevent forest conflagrations. It didn’t take long for this unity, soldered by the flames of southern California, to find a way to express itself in Congress.

On Halloween Eve, the Senate passed the so-called Healthy Forest Initiative with only a 14 votes of dissent. This bill is the no-holds-barred logging plan crafted by Bush’s forest czar, Mark Rey, a former ace timber industry lobbyist who now oversees the Forest Service from his perch as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture. Using fire prevention as a pretext, the legislation authorizes a kind of pre-emptive strike of logging across more than 20 million acres of federal lands. It also exempts the blitzkrieg of cutting from adherence to most environmental laws and shields it from legal challenges by pesky green groups.

Although environmentalists roundly derided the plan as a gift to big timber, it was embraced and championed in the senate by a cohort of top rank Democrats, including California’s Dianne Feinstein, Oregon’s Ron Wyden and Montana’s Max Baucus, the political playmate of celeb enviro Robert Redford. The version of the bill that passed the senate was spun as a compromised brokered by these three luminaries. In fact, it was essentially same the bill that Rey dreamed up for Bush and his backers in big timber and the building industry. Except the Democrats were more generous, increasing the funding for the $2.9 billion plan by $289 million more than even the White House requested.

Feinstein, long a favorite of the Sierra Club, was the lead perpetrator of soothing myths about the bill. “This legislation is not a logging bill,” Feinstein said. “This legislation would merely allow the brush to be cleared out.” She makes it sound like a weekend clean up operation, when the reality is more akin to the silvicultural equivalent of Shock and Awe.

There’s no money in clearing brush or thinning small trees. And let’s be clear, the Healthy Forests Initiative, which should land in the PR Hall of Fame in the category of most deceptively-titled bills, is all about making money for timber companies. Feinstein’s legislation underwrites the logging of big trees, many of them in roadless areas far removed from even the most advanced tentacles of suburban sprawl. In exchange, she doles out to complacent environmentalists, the Pavlovian dogs of the political establishment, a few tiny old-growth reserves as morsels, knowing that they can always be logged later. Hush puppies, indeed.

So the timber industry didn’t have to break a sweat to achieve their fondest objective. Politicians from both parties, along with the media, did their work for them. The public seems to fear fire more than other natural events, such as earthquakes or tornadoes. Fires seem preventable. People want to believe there’s a political fix and congress is anxious to feed that illusion.

But the forests and chaparral of southern California are meant to burn. It’s an ecosystem literally born, reared and shaped by fire. Once or twice every 20 years for the past 10 millennia these forests and scrublands have been scorched with fires at least as intense as those which blazed this autumn.

Logging off big (or little) trees won’t alter that ecological reality in the least, except, perhaps, to exacerbate it. Wildland fires are linked most firmly to periods of prolonged drought. The longer the drought, the bigger the fires. Indeed, logging will simply remove from the forest the hardiest trees, the very ones that have survived previous fires. In their place will come new logging roads which will open up tempting new avenues for forests arsonists.

The fires may also come more frequently because of economic factors. During recessions, arson-sparked forest fires become more common. At least three of the big California fires were deliberately set. Firefighting, which is almost useless in combating forest fires, is big business. And increasingly it’s a corporate business. Under Clinton and Bush, firefighting has been privatized. That business needs fires in order to prosper, the bigger the better. A government subsidy is just a match away. Firefighting and military expenditures are the last remnants of Keynsian economics thriving in the American system these days. Congress blindly writes blank checks for both enterprises regardless of their utility.

Of course, global warming also plays a role. The West is becoming drier and hotter. In the future, scrubland and forest fires will become more frequent, more intense and burn longer than in the past. But don’t expect action from the current crop of politicians on that front either. This congress is more likely to hand out tax breaks for designer SUVs, than give a dime to solar energy or raise fuel-efficiency standards. In the post 9/11 landscape, Bush has made the conspicuous burning of fossil fuels a patriotic emblem of American manliness.

Simply put: fire can’t be excluded from these ecosystems, but the endless march of subdivisions and mountain resorts can be halted. (Indeed, wildfires might be thought of as a naturopathic remedy of sorts, a kind of ecological radiation treatment for the cancer of urban spraw.) Of course, none of the politicians on the scene today will entertain notions of restricting in the least further development into the shrinking forests, deserts and chaparral of the arid and fire-prone West. Instead, they try to pacify the developers and homeowners with the comforting illusion that smart-bomb logging and beefed up firefighting can keep the inevitable infernos in check. It’s a dangerous delusion that cost 20 lives in the last couple of weeks and left thousands displaced.

The rich will survive to build again, bigger and sturdier structures, with irrigated lawns, swimming pools and tile roofs. The insurance companies will be pressed by politicians, such as the loathsome Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi, to pay up in full so that the building trades can prosper.

But what will become of the poor and uninsured, the true human victims of these autumn fires? One early calculation by the Los Angeles Times estimated that 32 percent of the residents evacuated from the southern California fires were welfare recipients, which means they were impoverished women and children. How many more were poor men? Elderly? Migrant workers? The desperate people who tend the homes of Riverside and Big Bear elite. Where will they end up?

The final victim in all of this is environmental movement itself. It is clearly defunct at the operational level. The green establishment vowed that stopping the Healthy Forest Initiative was their top legislative priority. But their campaign, which tried to lay all the blame on Bush and his gang of Republican ultras, was reduced to cinders with those California fires and the carrion feeders of the Democratic Party. They got creamed 80 to 14, betrayed by legislators, such as Feinstein, Wyden, Boxer, Murray and Baucus, who they had previously certified as champions of the green cause. One lonely vote. The child molester lobby wields more power on the Hill these days.

The big greens can’t even go down fighting. With the blood still wet on the floor from the slaughter in the senate, a representative from The Wilderness Society told the Idaho Statesman that the legislation “offers workable solutions to forest problems, as long as the government follows through with its promises.” There you have it. With one move, the Wilderness Society yanked the rug from beneath the grassroots greens and at the same time stamped its imprimatur on logging as a tool to fight forest fires.

Given a chance, the forests of the San Bernadinos will recover. The same can’t be said for the credibility of the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.


Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3