Interior Dept: Sequestration is going to mean less firefighting, you know

Just in case you thought the administration had finished drumming up frightening reasons for why Congress really needs to get their stuff together and undo sequestration, never fear. The past few summers, we’ve watched some truly catastrophic wildfires rage across the American landscape, and the Departments of Interior and Agriculture would like you to know that because of these automatic budget cuts, they’re going to be rather hard-pressed to find the adequate resources to mitigate the next round:

After another dry winter across much of the West, fire officials are poised for a tough wildfire season that will be even more challenging because federal budget cuts mean fewer firefighters on the ground, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Monday. …

They also will have fewer resources to use on strategies designed to reduce future fire potential, such as prescribed burns and reseeding.

“We will fight the fires and we will do them safely,” Jewell said. “But the resources will go to suppression, which is not ideal. What you’re not doing is putting the resources in place to thoughtfully manage the landscape for the future.”

Jewell spent the past two days touring the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, the government’s national wildfire nerve center. She was joined by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who said the U.S. Forest Service alone will hire 500 fewer firefighters and deploy 50 fewer engines this season.

“Thoughtfully manage the landscape for the future”? …Well, that’s mighty rich, considering that decades of poor government policies are directly responsible for the utterly havoc-wreaking nature of many of these recent fires. The federal government has performed some truly spectacular mismanagement of the public estate over the years, all thanks to a large bureaucracy subject to the lobbying of well-meaning but wildly mistaken environmentalists as well as the inherent flaws of central planning and collective ownership. I’m revisiting this piece from the Property and Environment Research Center, but it is just as true as ever:

In the late-1980s, for instance, timber harvesting off national forest land came to a nearly complete halt as a result of court injunctions precipitated in the Pacific Northwest. Litigation by environmentally conscious lobbying groups, specifically over concerns of habitat destruction for endangered species, made large-scale timber harvest a thing of the past. Grazing permits likewise encountered a dramatic decline for similar reasons. Combined with an aggressive thirty-year campaign of actively putting out all fires (is there any more iconic mascot than Smoky the Bear?), these actions led predictably to a dramatic increase in forest-density and ground cover.

Forest density and ground cover is called “habitat” by the green contingent, “fuel-load” by their brown compatriots. And, of course, there is an element of truth in each view, often masking personal preferences and economic agendas. But the point is this: the kind of see-sawing policy shifts which encouraged dramatic, perhaps unsustainable, increases in extractive uses in the early 1980s was followed by dramatic, perhaps unconscionable, reductions in these uses a decade later. These market-insulated policy shifts were not based on good information (which markets are extraordinarily good at projecting), but on politics and the relative power of lobbying those in control. The short-term increases in forest habitat resulting from reduced extraction charged the pan for the tremendous blazes we have encountered in the past decade.

Slow-moving bureaucracies operating with top-down fiat, political influences, and imperfect knowledge is a reliably poor recipe for efficient and responsive environmental stewardship. If ever there was a prime example of precisely why the federal government does need to be trimmed down, this is it — and in the meantime, let’s not forget that it was President Obama who declined to give federal agencies more flexibility with their sequester-spending cuts in order to bring about the most visible consequences possible.