The US Forest Service has Become the US Fire Service

August mist, rising over the Hoosier National Forest, southern Indiana. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

As we all now know catastrophic climate change is fueling catastrophic fires around the globe, including hideous fires out West that consume towns, take lives, destroy dreams, scorch soil, release carbon, warm planet Rather than address the underlying causes of climate change (burning things) The US Congress has decided to focus instead on putting out fires (that are the inevitable result of an ever warming planet) by throwing money at them. Congress has offered the Forest Service an enormous pot of money ($14 Billion – with a B – in the current Reconciliation package) with which to put them out. Fire “management” accounts for more than half of the entire Forest Service budget and so every National Forest in the country is either putting out fires (which is not really possible with megafires out West – try to save lives and homes; pray for rain) or finding reasons to burn the forests they have, or both.

So, here you have good people in green uniforms who joined the Forest Service to do good and now they find themselves in the tender tendrils of an agency that needs to increase its budget as all agencies must do, and it promotes and rewards the employees most adept at bringing home the bacon: funding from Congress, or locally, revenue the Forest Service gets to keep when it sells the trees to people who cut them down with huge machines then drag them off on new and “restored” roads. These roads then allow invasive exotic plants into the forest which then have to be sprayed with herbicide then burned again for good measure. All this fire, of course dries out the soil, kills slow animals and warms the planet while further injuring a still recovering forest.

Since Congress gives the agency lots to do but not enough resources to do those things like research or maintenance, that don’t include some payback to some corporate donor to the Congressperson’s political campaigns, ambitious managers are looking for projects that build budgets. Enter FIRE. There is no doubt a large caldron full of gleaming coins in an office in Washington DC into which regional Forest Service offices can dip so their constituent national forests can dip so each ranger district can dip; but all this dipping requires PROJECTS ever larger projects with ever more FIRE.

Since wet hardwood forests like the Hoosier National Forest are nothing like the dry forests of the fire-prone West, you can’t just go around burning things willy nilly, there’s always a pretext like “restoration,” or ecosystem management,” or “habitat enhancement,” or “fuel reduction” (especially after logging) and then of course, “oak regeneration.” There’s no shortage of reasons to log, to burn, to road and to spray. I love buffalo and springs are my life, but the forest is perfectly capable of “restoring” itself if these so-called managers would just give it half a chance. You really can’t do a lot of “restoring” of a recovering hardwood forest with a bulldozer a chainsaw a drip torch or an herbicide sprayer

You can destroy things you can contribute to catastrophic climate change and you can kill things like God’s most endearing creation, the box turtle, but you are not restoring anything except the degree of destruction of this forest caused by its original clearing a hundred years ago. This is a recovering forest whose oldest trees can live to be over five hundred years old. Leave them alone, please.

Andy Mahler is a forest activist living in southern Indiana.