We sometimes laugh at our 1970s pictures, now fading mercifully. I personally never liked bell bottoms, white belts, or double-knit polyester leisure suits. But I wore them because they were all the rage. We all had to, because in that era nobody could risk appearing uncool.
Thankfully, fashions change, but do we? We still want to stay on top of the latest trends, however strange they may look years later. We are like that in our politics, too, and few people want to risk political incorrectness — the modern version of uncool.
Consider the craze a few years ago to “save the old growth” forests, a popular chant among zealots who successfully stopped almost all forest activity, especially logging. Today we know that healthy forest restoration requires considerable thinning to achieve a more natural condition, and logging is a key component of successful management. By the time most of the political world figured that out, though, bark beetles had marched across millions of acres of forests from New Mexico to British Columbia, leaving a trail of destruction that would make Sherman blush. Colorado alone now has over 3 million acres of dead trees, not counting the vast swaths that have already burned.
Once these trees die, and even if they burn in today’s all-too-common catastrophic wildfires, they still have commercial value for several years if managers move quickly enough to get them harvested before they rot. But the slow pace of political fashion changes cannot keep pace with nature’s reaction to overgrown landscapes. More than 100 million acres have burned in the last 20 years. Weakened from years of no available timber — because of environmental appeals, lawsuits, and regulatory delay — sawmills in public land states all but vanished, leaving no industry with which to partner on the many restoration projects that most managers now think necessary. The decision process itself became so complicated that managers cannot even get approval to sell or remove dead trees. The system, in essence, “protects” already-dead landscapes.
A few years ago, the Obama administration offered some hope, pumping more than $1 billion into the Forest Service to save and create new jobs through projects badly needed to restore the national forests. Sadly, little of it ever reached the desperately unhealthy forest landscapes. Instead, it was spent in-house, or given out in grants that had nothing to do with either jobs or healthy forests — funding for outdoor youth programs and such, which did nothing to save jobs in the industry with which the government must partner to manage forests. Funds are often provided for clearing dangerous trees from roadsides, campgrounds, power lines, and mountain homes, but the problem is so much larger than such target areas. The forest health problem covers entire forests, counties, and states.
These occasional blasts of apparent understanding from the federal government always sound like good news. But in the end, the system invariably reverts back to the old fashion of “saving” the forests. That was the “style” for