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

By Tom SchierholzStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 12, 1988

Cody, Wyo.

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.

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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.

``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.''