Fires ignite debate over `let-it-burn' policy

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For the 9,000 firefighters battling wind-fed blazes in and around Yellowstone National Park, the end of fire season is not yet in sight. But officials from the National Park Service (NPS) and the United States Forest Service (USFS) appear to be making some headway in controlling the public relations firestorm that has been burning alongside the Yellowstone parkland.

The fire management policies of both agencies - which have been sharply criticized by some members of Congress and by local businesspeople who have seen the summer tourist trade go up in smoke with the fires - have in recent days won the public support of many environmental groups.

And senior Reagan administration officials - who toured the fire areas in and around Yellowstone over the weekend - have, at least for the moment, backstopped the fire management decisions of NPS and USFS officials and muted calls for the resignation of NPS director William Mott.

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``What I hope we can do is minimize the Monday morning quarterbacking right now - at least until we can get those fires out,'' Interior Secretary Donald Hodel told a group of reporters and local residents here Saturday evening.

At the center of the controversy over management of the Yellowstone fires - and Western fires in general - are Park Service and Forest Service policies adopted in the 1970s which allow officials - under safe burning conditions - to let naturally occurring fires burn themselves out. Critics here say the policy of natural regulation has proved unworkable given the swath of wildfires that have raged out of control - so far consuming more than 1 million acres in Yellowstone National Park and adjacent national forest lands, and more than 4 million acres in seven Western states and Alaska.

Park and Forest Service officials, however, continue to stand by the guidelines - blaming this summer's severe and unexpected drought, rather than the policy, for the fires.

It is estimated that fires as extensive as those currently burning in Yellowstone and the West have not been seen in 200 to 400 years.

``During the past 16 years, our experience has taught us that tens of thousands of lightning strikes fizzle out and burn no significant acreage at all,'' Mr. Mott told a news conference in Washington last week.

``If a fire is a threat to life or property or threatens to go outside of our boundaries and is unacceptable, suppression operations are begun,'' he says.

That rationale has satisfied most mainline environmental groups. ``A hundred ninety-nine years out of 200, it works,'' says Michael Scott of the Wilderness Society about the policy. ``This is the 200th year.''

But some environmentalists aren't letting the policy off the hook so easily.

Playing God in Yellowstone?

``Natural regulation is based on the assumption that the areas being managed are in original condition,'' says Alston Chase, author of the 1986 book ``Playing God in Yellowstone'' and an outspoken critic of Park Service policies who has been watching Yellowstone for more than 40 years. ``In fact,'' Mr. Chase contends, wilderness areas in North America have been ``radically altered since European man arrived.''

The current fire management policy, Chase says, follows on the heels of a policy that mandated suppression of all forest fires between 1872 and 1972. The sequence of policies failed to account for the buildup of more than 100 years of natural fuels - the dead wood, brush and pine cones especially prone to wildfires, Chase says.

Were those fuels to be consumed by truly natural fires - which occurred in Yellowstone every 40 years prior to 1872 according to tree ring studies - the effect of fire on the wilderness would be salutary, Chase says. But the huge buildup and extreme dryness of fuels this year, fires burn hotter and are likely to damage the wilderness system, Chase says. (Officials put brush and tree-moisture levels at around 2 percent this season. By comparison, kiln-dried lumber holds 12 percent moisture.)

Park authorities hold little regard for Chase's position and would not respond to it, a Yellowstone spokesman says.

Mainline environmentalists take issue with Chase's position, saying he is too bound by a vision of what Yellowstone used to be. ``It sounds good in the abstract,'' says Hank Fischer of Defenders of Wildlife, ``but is not too realistic in a practical sense.''

Others point out that widespread, controlled burning could reduce the excess fuels in the forest. But there's no guarantee that a wilderness will not be damaged by natural fires that skip over the open spaces created by controlled burns or by controlled burns that go out of control, mainline environmentalists say.

Future fire policy

Despite their differences on present fire management policy, Chase, other environmentalists, and government fire managers agree on one issue: This year's fires should not be allowed to swell sentiment for total fire suppression in the future.

The century of mandatory fire suppression prior to 1972 grew out of widespread frustration with catastrophic forest fires, says Brien Culhane of the National Parks and Conservation Association.

A forest fire in Peshtigo, Wis., in October 1871, killed some 1,500 people - sparking a movement to stamp out wildfires whenever and wherever they occurred, Mr. Culhane says.

The Peshtigo fire, together with subsequent catastrophies in the late 19th and early 20th century galvanized the policy of total fire suppression that remained in place until 1972.

``What would be tragic,'' Culhane says, ``is if we had the same reaction now as happened back then.'' A new policy favoring fire suppression would pave the way for yet another catastrophic fire season years from now, he says.

Park officials and businesspeople in the Yellowstone area are working hard to defeat the perception that the forestlands burned so far have created a moonscape at the park and elsewhere.

While fire boundaries currently encompass more than 4 million acres nationwide, they note, not all of the area where the fires have passed will be charred or necessarily touched.

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