It’s Time to Snuff out the “Let it Burn” Idea

Posted on Freedom Advocates on November 24th 2003 

By [post_author] –

Pacific Legal Foundation Vice-President M. David Stirling explains how
the Endangered Species Act is anti-environment and therefore
anti-human. The devastation caused by the recent California fires
exemplifies how such policies undermine life for humans, plants and
wildlife. The “Let it Burn” attitude is more than disturbing when it
emanates from a group called the “Forest Service Employees for
Environmental Ethics”.


On October 13, an eco-activist group called the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics filed a federal suit in Missoula, Montana, against the U.S. Forest Service, seeking to stop Forest Service firefighters’ use of aerially-applied chemical fire retardants and heavy equipment such as bulldozers to create firebreaks in the national forests. A few days later the most devastating fires in California history erupted.

Timing, we are told, is everything. Yet, bad as this timing was, its flaws pale compared to those of the idea motivating the so-called “environmental ethicists” who filed the suit. Based on the Endangered Species Act, these self-appointed fire policy-makers contend that the use of chemical retardants and bulldozers are detrimental to protected wildlife species. They argue that the ESA requires a federal court to stop all such suppression efforts.

The argument that the Forest Service’s spraying of fire retardants and use of bulldozers to create fire breaks are “negatives” for protected species is not only extreme; it defies common sense and years of firefighting experience. Speaking for the U.S. Forest Service Retirees, Richard Pfilf, a 30-year forester, ranger, and forest supervisor, said: ?We believe that an injunction in favor of the plaintiffs will result in serious and increasing loss of life to firefighters and citizens, an increase in damage to property, and a greatly increased cost of fighting fires. Such an injunction will cause great harm to the fabric of affected communities, due to increased destruction of community infrastructure and the displacement of its citizens.?

That some sediment or fire retardant might occasionally get into streams hardly justifies snuffing out proven fire-extinguishing techniques, especially when out-of-control fires ultimately threaten not only lives and property, but decimate countless species and habitat, and degrade inestimable watershed and forest streams – the very natural treasures environmental groups say they desire to protect.

Yet, this and most other environmental organizations firmly embrace a “nature first, people last” philosophy, which, in the case of forests, means taking no human steps to remove the kindling-like accumulation of dead and dying trees, and when a fire begins, allowing it to burn naturally without human intervention.

Because environmentalists within the Forest Service support the former Clinton Administration’s “let it burn” forest management practice, just last year seven million acres of forests were destroyed, 15 states experienced heavily-polluted air and water, and 23 firefighters died as people’s homes burned. Maybe this “natural” approach to forest fires is just too sophisticated a proposition for regular people to understand, but it seems obvious that when a forest catches fire, species will die and so may people.

What makes this issue all the more frustrating is that the government has already addressed potential risks of fire retardant chemicals on ESA-protected species. Under the Forest Service’s own regulations, airplane and helicopter pilots currently shut off their sprayers within 300 feet of streams or rivers.

But the “let it burn” activists know no limits. They want firefighters to obtain an “advance” permit for aerial spraying and bulldozing. Imagine the nightmare for fire crews fighting multiple fires coordinating permit applications to the Environmental Protection Agency for aerial spraying and the Army Corps of Engineers for bulldozing. If it weren’t so serious, it would be laughable.

In the just-contained Southern California fires, 22 lives, 3,577 homes, and nearly 745,000 public and private forest acres were lost. If this ESA-based lawsuit had tied the hands of the 15,630 valiant firefighters who brought these fires under control, the devastation would have been unimaginable.

But the anti-people Endangered Species Act is the activists’ vehicle. It has allowed them to damage thousands of lives and livelihoods since its enactment in 1973. Until Congress finds the political will to make the ESA people-friendly, all lawsuits based on it must be taken seriously.

M. David Stirling is vice-president of PLF. He can be reached at


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