A Call to Action: Revision 17.8
Frank Carroll's Smokey Dragon illustration speaks powerfully to the horrific damage wildfires and the Forest Service's "managed fire for ecosystem benefit" program are doing to the nation's 193-million-acre federal forest estate. Across the West, about half of these acres are now dying, dead or burnt to a crisp, a direct result of lousy forest policies that sprouted from the government's 1993 decision to list the Northern Spotted Owl as a threatened species. But the owl was merely a surrogate for the preservationist campaign to "save" old growth forests from logging. What wasn't considered in the promulgation of the regulatory maze that followed was that the absence of forest and fuels management would trigger the wildfire pandemic we are facing today.

A Call to Action: Revision 17.8

We have paired Frank Carroll's Smokey Dragon illustration with Michael Rain's latest Call to Action because we all share a belief that the risk of wildfire in western federal forests is now so high that there is no place where the Forest Service can safely tinker with what it calls "managed fire for ecosystem benefit."

Together, Michael and Frank bring about 80 hard-earned years of related but different fire/forest management experience to their well established roles in the nation's increasingly contentious wildfire debate. Should we stamp out these fires as quickly as possible or let them "play their natural role?"

Frank is a legendary boat rocker who worked mostly in fire for the Forest Service for 31 years before he co-founded Professional Forest Management, a Colorado firm that works with private forest landowners across the West that have grievances against the federal government, usually involving wildfires.

Michael is the polar opposite of Frank: a soft-spoken diplomat who always signs his e-mails "Be safe and well, please. Very respectfully, Michael T. Rains."

And Frank's dragon? For several years, the Forest Service authorized fire bosses battling wildfires to drop incendiary "dragon eggs" from airplanes in the fire's path to keep it moving through forests that should have been thinned to reduce the size, frequency and destructive power of resulting wildfire. But politically powerful preservationist groups - led by the Sierra Club - oppose all forms of forest management but see nothing wrong with killer wildfires.

Frank called the whole sorry mess "blowtorch forestry." Memorable soundbite.

Forest Service Chief, Randy Moore, insists his agency no longer drops dragon eggs on wildfires, but it did for years in northern California. Moreover, seasoned fire watchers, most of them Forest Service retirees, don't see any evidence that the agency has abandoned its use of "managed fire for ecosystem benefit."

We don't doubt the ecological benefits that natural and Native fire played in western forests for eons, but we have serious concerns about public health and safety problems that rise from today's wildfire pandemic.

Managed fire proponents blame "logging and a century of fire suppression" for the pandemic. This is nonsense. The Forest Service's management role in the West was largely custodial until after World War II. Western federal forests were largely unroaded until 1946.

The post-war Truman Administration opened these forests for two reasons: to provide wood, packaging and paper products for the economic boom that followed the war and to provide job opportunities for millions of GI's streaming home from Europe and the South Pacific.

Lyle Watts, Truman's wartime Forest Service Chief [1943-1952] clearly understood that the agency's role involved far more than building roads and felling big timber. He foresaw the need for long-term planning based on good science and the parallel need for wood processing infrastructure capable of meeting the nation's burgeoning demand for forest products.

Watts summed up the Forest Service's core mission while on a tour of Arizona's Tonto National Forest in May 1944:

"Forest conservation involves much more than the growing of crops on forest lands to supply raw material in one form or another for an ever-growing list of uses. Forestry must be coupled with the social and economic welfare of rural communities, especially in regions primarily dependent upon forest industries. Improving forest productivity should mean a great deal to rural America in augmenting the income of farm folk, maintaining pay rolls in small communities, and sustaining the tax base to support local government functions."

Watts' observation largely disappeared from the Forest Service script during the spotted owl wars. There was no one to read it. Forest Service staffers hired in the 20 years following World War II retired or died. The few that are still with us are the ones who guard the agency's legacy. They are the canaries in the coal mine. We ignore their wildfire warnings at our own peril.

This brings us to Michael Rains, a nearly 50-year Forest Service veteran who began his career as a wildland firefighter in California and ended it as a Deputy Chief in Washington D.C. He was the agency lead in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and USDA lead in development of the National Fire Plan.

In retirement, Michael started two new careers: Tutoring and teaching school kids in his Pennsylvania hometown and posting his Call to Action blog on the Internet. It is a meticulous in-depth assessment of the wrong-headed approach to wildfire that is so prevalent in Forest Service leadership ranks today.

Michael's chief concern - which we share - involves the fact that the benefits of "managed fire for ecosystem benefits" pale when compared to the risks to forests and public health and safety. His Call is now 241 pages long and features 216 citations from publicly-funded studies that support his concerns, including carcinogenic wildfire smoke that kills thousands of Americans annually.

Blessedly, Michael has reduced his 241 page analysis to a two-page summary. Sort of like the CliffsNotes study guides that accompany many books. Each summary includes hyperlinks that take you to the full document and the citations.

Also, on Page 2 of Michael's summary, you can click on any of the boxes in the Graphic Organizer for more information. His classroom mind must have been running at warp speed when he did this. It's an excellent learning aid.

Revision 17.8. 241-pages

Revisision 17.8 two-page summary.

If you haven't read Michael's long version with its 261 citations it is definitely worth your time and trouble. Lots of talking points that will help you explain to others how far the Forest Service has strayed from its esteemed mission: To sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation's forests and grasslands to meet the needs or present and future generations.

With about half of the nation's Federal Forest Estate dying, dead or burnt to a crisp, I don't understand how anyone in Forest Service leadership can make this claim with a straight face. What we see is an environmental tragedy that will take centuries to repair. If we don't get started soon many of the West's National Forests will soon become National Brushfields.

Jim Petersen is Founder and President of the non-profit Evergreen Foundation and author of First, Put Out the Fire!, published in 2020

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