Lake Tahoe, CA -- After Hurricane Andrew swept through Florida in 1992, the UN placed the Everglades on its list of World Heritage Sites in danger. The UN also cited the threat of urban development to the famed 'River of Grass.' But apparently Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne knows something about both hurricanes and sprawl, as well as global warming and water supply, that the rest of us have missed. Kempthorne has successfully lobbied the UN to remove the Everglades from the "sites in danger" list. In its announcement, UNESCO said the park, "had been threatened by urban growth and pollution, as well as by the damage caused to Florida Bay in 1992 by Hurricane Andrew."
Floridians were aghast. "It had been?" asked Jonathan Ullman, Everglades field representative for the Sierra Club. "Urban growth and pollution went away? I didn't get the news flash. The Everglades is more threatened than ever. I'd like to take the UN on a tour of the Everglades."
Since the 1992 designation, of course, most of us have learned that with global warming and related sea level rise, places like the Everglades -- elevation three feet or less -- are now in critical danger. Not to worry. Kempthorne's spokesperson told the media that, "We believe it was in recognition of the progress that has been made in addressing key issues that led to the listing of the park." No one in Florida, it appears, was even consulted before the de-listing occurred, during a UNESCO meeting in Australia.
Meanwhile, back at home, communities at South Lake Tahoe have been devastated by the Angora Wildland Fire which has scorched 2,500 acres and destroyed more than 200 buildings. The Tahoe basin's forests, overgrown from decades of well-intentioned fire suppression, need to be thinned of small trees and brush, particularly in the vicinity of homes in the urban-wildland interface. Climate change and beetle infestations have exacerbated the problem. While many good projects have gone forward, the problem is huge and much work remains to be done.
So, what has been the response of the timber industry's allies in Congress and in the media? Blame environmentalists. Senator Larry Craig announced that the problem was resistance in local communities to clearing out this brush. "We tried and weren't allowed to, and they lost their homes," Craig said. "I don't know if I want to smile, or I want to cry." The Lahontan Valley News claimed that the problem was the Sierra Club's opposition to logging on the national forests -- as if we had blocked timber sales in the back yards of Tahoe homeowners. Homeowners in one Tahoe subdivision claimed the problem was the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.
The reality is simple -- and tragic. It costs money to clean brush, thin understory, remove downed wood and eliminate fire dangers around homes. Senator Craig has repeatedly rejected appeals by the Sierra Club to make such community protection zones the first priority for the Forest Service budget -- and the overwhelming bulk of the Forest Service funding still goes to subsidizing timber activities in the back country, far from homes, or fighting fires when it is too late. Very little goes to community protection, and the Forest Services continues to battle to cut down the remaining, fire-resistant, old-growth forests. As long as that continues to be true, there will be a fire next time. If we want to end these tragedies, we need to invest more in stopping them than we do in encouraging them. It's that simple, but the Ministry of Truth would like to tell us that spending our money miles from communities is the way to protect them.