Federal Forest Controversy Final Judgement: Colorado Fires Fan the Flames

It’s hot in Colorado! It is not just that summer began officially a little over a week ago. Nor is it that last week Denver, with an average high temperature of 103.5¯, hit the record of 105¯, twice! Nor is it that a drought, which began in the winter of 2011-2012 and lasted through the spring, continues unabated. What makes Colorado so hot is that it appears to be burning up.

Colorado’s 2012 “wildfire season” got a frighteningly earlystart with a March blaze in the forested foothills southwest of Denver. Caused by a controlled (“prescribed”) burn-in warm weather and high winds-by the Colorado Forest Service, which got out of control, the Lower North Fork Fire forced the evacuation of 900 homes, destroyed or damaged two dozen homes, and killed three residents. Despite valiant efforts by firefighters, the weeklong blaze ended only with the arrival of an early April snow and cold temperatures. Although state officials ended prescribed burns, Coloradoans were fearful.

Then, on June 9, lightning struck in the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest west of Fort Collins; the High Park Fire was underway. A month later, with only 85% containment, the fire has blackened over 87,000 acres, destroyed 257 homes and killed one resident. Suddenly it appeared that all of Colorado was ablaze: the Woodland Heights Fire near Rocky Mountain National Park, the Treasure Fire near Leadville, the Stateline Fire at the New Mexico border, the Little Sand Fire near Durango, and the Weber Fire near Mesa Verde National Park. Sadly, the worst was yet to come.

On June 23, the Waldo Canyon Fire erupted in the Pike National Forest west of the State’s second largest city, Colorado Springs, forced the evacuation of portions of that city and Manitou Springs, and closed The Garden of the Gods, Pike’s Peak Highway, and the Air Force Academy to visitors. At only 55% containment, the fire has destroyed nearly 18,000 acres and 346 homes-the most in Colorado history-and killed two residents. Colorado’s fires may have put the State in the news, but it is not alone. The Little Bear Fire (near the home of Smokey Bear) in the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico swept across 38,000 acres and destroyed 224 homes. Meanwhile, forest fires burned in Arizona, Washington, and Wyoming.

The courage, dedication, and tenacity of the firefighters, on the ground and airborne, cannot be overstated: however, the ability of the U.S. Forest Service to fight these fires has been questioned. For example, FOX News contributor Michelle Malkin, who was evacuated from her Colorado home, derides the Forest Service’s 2011 decision to cancel a contract for firefighting planes; later, the company shut down. Congressman Dan Lungren (R-CA 3rd) condemned the action: “Our aerial firefighting fleet is already seriously undercapitalized.”

Congressman Steve Pearce (R-NM 2nd) argues, “We just can’t keep managing our forests this way. It’s not a question of if our forests in the West are going to burn; it’s a matter of when.” It is little wonder that the national forests in the West are tinderboxes. Environmental groups and activist judges use the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and other federal laws to prevent forest management; in fact, days before the High Park Fire started, an Idaho federal judge killed a forest thinning project in response to the demands of environmental groups worried about the Canadian lynx.

Recently the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit was asked to uphold the ruling of a Montana federal judge who rejected demands by environmental groups to stop a federal-state-local/public-private forest health project undertaken to prevent loss of human life during catastrophic fires. At oral argument, one judge inquired, “How many will die?” Apparently not enough; the three-judge panel reversed the decision because the plan did not provide enough elk cover. Today, in Colorado and the West, forests burn, homes are lost, and people die.

Mr. Pendley, a Wyoming ­attorney, is President and Chief Legal ­Officer of Mountain States Legal Foundation and a regular ­c­olum­nist  in ­Loggers World.