"These are the times that try men’s souls.”
We fear it’s happening already. Fresh from the funeral of 19 courageous firefighters who died for strangers, a slew of congressional types have for next week scheduled a hearing on “wildfire and forest management.”
On the face of it, that’s a good thing. The federal government has managed the forest into a firestorm — year by year by year by year. A century of arrogance and miscalculation set the stage for the searing tragedy of the Yarnell Hill Fire — and threatens the survival of every community in Rim Country.
We’re dismayed, however, by some of the rhetoric in the press release announcing the Thursday hearing before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation.
Several of the congressmen hoping the shock and horror caused by the deaths of those heroes in a hell of flame will give them a platform to snag headlines and place blame. Typically, some of those comments blame bureaucrats and environmentalists for the deadly condition of a forest that now has tree densities perhaps 100 times their natural state. Certainly, a flurry of environmental lawsuits have played a role in paralyzing forest management. But this tragedy grew inexorably from a century of overgrazing, mindless fire suppression and a refusal to manage the forest in a sustainable way. Forest managers sowed the wind and our firefighters have reaped the whirlwind. Moreover, decades of reckless building and dangerous building codes have increased the stakes immeasurably.
Rep. Paul Gosar, who represents Rim Country and serves on that committee, attended those heartbreaking funerals in Prescott. In the release, he quite correctly said, “we owe these men our everlasting thanks and we owe their families a commitment to pursue pro-active forest management policies, which will minimize catastrophic wildfires in the future.”
Absolutely true: Every word. Alas, we would have more confidence in his determination to seek solutions instead of conflict if his own bill seeking to speed up forest thinning projects had taken a more constructive and balanced approach. Still, we pray he will rise to the terrible demands of the moment and seek a solution that will unite instead of divide.
People like Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin and the loggers, environmentalists and foresters who hammered out the consensus that underlies the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) showed us all the way. They agreed on the need to protect the remaining big trees — and let a revived timber industry make money on the small trees choking millions of acres.
So for starters, we hope the Natural Resources Subcommittee will swiftly embrace 4FRI — and make it work.
Secondly, we hope the subcommittee will reject the criminally foolish policy that forces the Forest Service to take money out of its forest restoration budget to pay the multi-billion-dollar cost of fighting these fires. The money to fight wildfires should come from FEMA, for these catastrophes are surely hurricanes of flame.
Finally, let us set aside the blame and headline hunting. We have pursued that approach to its smoldering, tragic conclusion.
Enough. A thousand times enough.
Rise now to the tragedy we have created — as this nation has risen in unity and determination to every crisis in our history.
So we welcome the press releases and the hearings and the public grief. But do not turn to the sterile, self-serving, self-deceiving arguments that created this tragedy. These are indeed the times that try men’s souls — and reveal our character. The Granite Hills Hotshots passed that test — now the wheel turns to us.
Thomas Paine said it perfectly back at the beginning of things: “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”