Fires indicate popular opinion not always wise

Democracy has been a boon to many, including us, the people of the United States.

For those of us with limited recall from history class, our system of government is our Founders’ response to the very autocratic rule of the English monarch that, more than anything, prompted the American Revolution.

Since then, various variations of democratic rule have proved to be a step up for many countries around the world, though any careful observer can see that even democracy, in its various forms, certainly has its flaws. We’re human, after all. We’re not all we think we are.

Group-think does not always produce the wisest outcomes, though it’s often much preferable to non-benevolent dictatorship. Imagine what life could be like if we were ruled by a true autocrat.

Still, that haze of smoke from distant wildfires, hanging in the air over Sweet Home early this week, has been a reminder of some frailties of our system of government.

Surrounded by forests as we are in Sweet Home, with 75 miles of nearly unbroken timberland to the east and only slightly lesser swaths to the north and south, fire is always on our minds during the hot, dry summer. And it should be.

And, lest this seem like a rabbit trail from our original point, it really isn’t. It’s a result. When we look at these infernos, we realize how unpredictable the results of public policy, in our case, driven by the will of what ostensibly is the majority, can be.

Some 25 years ago, the will of the people, many of whom have probably never seen a western evergreen forest, and certainly don’t live in one, manifested itself in the near-shutdown of timber harvests in the national forests that blanket our region. Sure, the Northwest Forest Plan came after a succession of court rulings and legislative and administrative actions, but it was, theoretically at least, the will of the majority of Americans who elected those heads of state and legislators who appointed those judges.

When we look at the map of the Plan, enacted in response to environmentalists’ legal strategies to “protect” the forests and their inhabitants, it’s pretty clear that there has to be a correlation between the increasing fire danger we’re experiencing and how that plan came to be back in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. It’s hard to argue that what’s happened in southern Oregon, in northern California – vast regions covered by the Northwest Forest Plan – aren’t a result of public policy.

There are, certainly, other factors in the proliferation of the mega-infernos we’ve been seeing, if not over our shoulders, at least on the nightly news. The climate is a big player. There is urban sprawl, which has contributed to the fatalities, particularly in the Redding-area fire.

But there’s no question that the thickening, if not spread, of forests is a contributor, particularly in the wooded mountains of the Northwest and northern California.

The short-sightedness of that public policy, especially when viewed in the rear-view mirror, should be, well, humbling or maddening, depending on which side one is on.

One effect that probably wasn’t an intention of the Northwest Forest Plan has been that the U.S. Forest Service in Sweet Home and elsewhere has seen its staff dwindle significantly and, consequently, has been unable to maintain the roads, bridges and other infrastructure that help firefighters get to burning areas quickly.

Forest Service engineering positions have been eliminated. Although forestry officials have sought to preserve roads commonly used by the public for recreation, others, including some in this area, have been shut down, which makes access more difficult in the event of a fire in the Willamette National Forest.

Then we have the problem of forests that have been left relatively untouched by either fire or logging over the past quarter century. Trees grow. They don’t stop at a convenient point when there’s adequate habitat for spotted owls or marbled murrelets. And when they get too big and too dense, they burn really well, producing lots of carbon, especially on a hot day.

That’s how public policy, particularly when enacted over the protests of the population with actual knowledge and commitment to the lands in question, can backfire.

The history of the United States is full of ebbs and flows in public policy. As is true everywhere, our government is influenced by money and power.

Entertainment stars, academics, concentrated urban populations, and members of the the general public influenced by media and personalities all have influence, which can filters down to our legislators, who if they aren’t personally committed to a cause, will do what they need to to gain love from voters.

The aftermath of the Northwest Forest Plan has left economies, such as Sweet Home’s, severely impacted. But though it’s certainly not the only one, the condition of our forests is a big contributor to the dangers we all face and the tragedies others have experienced.

Finally, we appreciate our local firefighters’ diligence in responding to every threat in our community. When there’s a report of a grass fire, they get out there very, very quickly. The $1.575 million bond approved by local voters two years ago to further equip the Sweet Home Fire and Ambulance District is costing us all, but given the circumstances, it’s a smart investment in our safety.

When we see those trucks roll out to a grass fire or a lightning strike in the forest, that money looks well spent.

And that, we note, was also an exercise in democracy.