[MCN] A few thoughts on wildfire and the Forest Service

John Meyer john at cottonwoodlaw.org
Sun Jul 15 10:21:36 EDT 2018

Hey Bozeman and Missoula,

I went to some bowhunting films last night and one of the interviewees mentioned wildfires in a negative context. I watched as guys were killing large elk in recently burned areas and it got me thinking...

Politicians frequently use fear as a tool to garner approval and control the dialogue on various issues. 

Wildfire is no exception. 

Smokey the Bear is arguably the most successful piece of political propaganda our country has ever seen. 

The message "Only you can prevent wildfires" implies that wildfires are bad. The messaging is brilliant because it  scares you but also singles you out and empowers you to have control over the situation. 

So where did this notion that wildfires are bad come from? It was a political compromise. 

Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot were trying to stop the timber barons from robbing the public of our natural resources. 

Then came the fires of 1910. People died and entire towns burned.  

Roosevelt and Pinchot saw it as an opportunity. They decided to demonize fire to get the Forest Service up and running. That way they could be heroes for “protecting" the forests and get federal employees on the land to ensure people weren’t stealing our natural resources. 

Large fires have always been a part of the western landscape. They were here before the pilgrims. We didn’t have the fires of 1910 because of a lack of forest management. We had the fires of 1910 because large fires have always been a part of the landscape—they are natural. 

Fast forward 108 years and politicians are still demonizing radical environmentalists that stop timber sales intended to prevent wildfires. 

Let’s be honest: technology has killed the timber industry. Entire teams of guys cutting down timber with cross cut saws have been replaced by a single feller buncher. We can cut down twice as many trees in half the amount of time with 1/5 of the work force. 

So here is my question: How do we address wildfire in a science-based fashion that does not let politicians evoke fear mongering to control the discourse?

Remember: Only you can prevent politicians from lying.  

When I was working as a plant biologist for the Flathead National Forest Service I used to hike alone in grizzly bear country and survey for threatened and endangered plants. If I found a plant the Forest Service would not allow logging in that area. At the time, U.S. Senator Conrad Burns was talking about how we had to salvage log to prevent the area from going to waste. The “salvage log” rhetoric ran through my head as I took this photo. I realized the forests were not going to be wasted if they were not logged. I decided to go to law school. Now certain politicians whine about the “disastrous” Cottonwood decision. 

More and more people are starting to realize what is going on. Now if only we could have our elected officials host some town halls...

John Meyer
Executive Director & General Counsel 
Cottonwood Environmental Law Center
P.O. Box 412 Bozeman, MT 59771
John at Cottonwoodlaw.org
(406) 546-0149

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