The political debate these days feels a lot like watching a crown fire: Heat, smoke, destruction and a tragic, all-consuming waste.
Consider, as one recent example, the strange and sterile debate in the U.S. Senate race about the most important federal issue confronting Rim Country: The terrible likelihood that the next Wallow Fire will consume our homes.
Here’s an issue of vital concern to all of northern Arizona.
So wouldn’t you think the two U.S. Senate candidates would engage in a vigorous, constructive, creative, urgent debate about how to repair a century of forest mismanagement?
Nope. No chance.
Republican Rep. Jeff Flake at least raised the issue during a swing through northern Arizona that included a stop on the edge of the Wallow Fire burn area.
He correctly pointed out that the survival of rural communities like Payson depends on a fundamental shift in Forest Service management of the forest. He also correctly pointed out that red tape and arcane, inflexible rules have stalled that shift in policy.
But then he swerved into the same scapegoating and over statement that created the deadlock that now poses the greatest danger to our community. He blamed the “radical environmentalists” and the heedless “bureaucrats” and called for the unrestrained return to logging and cattle grazing that helped create the tinderbox in which we must live.
And what did Dr. Richard Carmona have to say in response? When the Roundup contacted his office, his campaign dutifully produced a list of votes going back for a decade by which Rep. Flake voted against one massive budget bill or another that included money for the Forest Service or for thinning and rehabilitation.
Alas, neither response had much to do with the actual problem.
In truth, we need bipartisan solutions that protect forested communities by safeguarding both the ecology and the economy. The loggers were right: We need the timber industry. The environmentalists were right: We need to restore old-growth forests adapted to a natural fire sequence. That means managing the forest in a sustainable way, with grazing leases and timber sales offering tools to achieve that greater goal.
The Four Forests Restoration Initiative certainly showed the way when the environmentalists sat down with the loggers and the lions with the lambs and agreed on a strategy that would focus on trees smaller than 16 inches in diameter growing in thickets on millions of acres.
Naturally enough, the Forest Service then picked a contractor without secure financing or broad experience. Somehow, that choice managed to upset both pro-logging-and-grazing Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin and the big-tree-loving Centers for Biological Diversity.
The true solution remains so close at hand, but the political rhetoric remains so irrelevant — and destructive. We need a cogent, realistic, long-term plan that will provide timber companies with the predictability they need to make a huge investment in the mills and industries that can make use of the small trees that pose such a grave danger on a massive scale. For a fraction of the money used to bailout the banks that crashed their casino economy, we could have laid the foundation for a sustainable timber industry that would restore rather than destroy.
Instead, we get a political debate that consumes reason and compromise and insight, leaving only dead snags of logic and the smoldering debris of hope.
Come to think of it, it’s a lot like walking through the smoking, barren ground after the crown fire has passed.