Dear U.S. Forest Service,
You should have been more careful about what you wish for, because a federal judge just gave all forest management authority to you, an agency already tapped out from yet another horrifying fire season.
For more than a decade you have been in a cycle of robbing Peter (your fuel removal account) to pay Paul (your wildland fire bills). The problem is so dire, and so chronic, your minders in the Department of the Interior asked Congress last month to budget $250 million annually specifically to fight fires.
To put that dollar amount in context, you spent $243 million in one week in August trying to knock down forest flames.
And yet rather than help guide the good intentions of New Mexico and Otero County, which simply wanted to proactively thin your overgrown forests, you filed a lawsuit.
This month Chief U.S. District Judge Christina Armijo said you won, that “federal law pre-empts state law” and the 2001 New Mexico statute (enacted the year after the Cerro Grande fire burned hundreds of Los Alamos homes and threatened one of the nation’s nuclear weapons laboratories) isn’t worth the paper it is written on.
Yet it is interesting to note that same statute says New Mexico residents and officials repeatedly – and unsuccessfully – petitioned you, the Forest Service, to address the conditions that created a state of emergency in and around the national forests in New Mexico.
Since you apparently have done a 180 and are really into thinning and fuel management now, the residents of New Mexico look forward to seeing “what an acre of forest land should look like.” That’s what Otero County Commissioner Ronny Rardin promised to show the world in 2011, before you sued to stop any tree cutting and two record-setting wildfire seasons further charred the Land of Enchantment.
The USDA, Interior and Office of Management and Budget warned Congress last month that “climate change has led to fire seasons that are now on average 78 days longer than in 1970. The U.S. burns twice as many acres as three decades ago and Forest Service scientists believe the acreage burned may double again by mid-century.”
So when it comes to a fire trap, to paraphrase an old commercial, you asked for it, you got it. Up until now, you would rather watch the place burn down than yield any of your bureaucratic power.
New Mexicans have asked you to thin your forests for more than a decade. Now that you can claim victory in the courts, it’s officially your responsibility and yours alone.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.