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Land mismanagement

Catastrophic wildfires show we need to exercise better dominion

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We timed it just right last year, when my sister and I fulfilled a long-standing ambition to visit Yosemite National Park for our annual fall camping excursion. “Camping” has become more of a spectrum for us—where once we tramped down the Grand Canyon’s South Kaibab Trail carrying all our supplies on our 50-year-old backs, we now do moderate day hikes, rounded out in a comfy cabin. At Yosemite we split the difference and stayed in a canvas-sided tent with mattresses and electrical outlets. We got the spectacular trees and scenery. We missed the catastrophic wildfires of 2018 and today.

Climatologists agree that the West will remain a tinderbox for the foreseeable future. Some put all the blame on climate change, but others have been pointing, with increasing urgency, to federal management policies dating from the “Big Burn” of 1910. That blaze destroyed over 3 million acres in Idaho and Montana and revitalized the U.S. Forest Service, doubling its budget and influence. It also established a zero-tolerance policy toward all wildfires with an aim to stomping them out, wherever possible, by midmorning after the day they were spotted.

That might have been an overreaction. Many officials now believe it’s better to let normal wilderness wildfires clear out the undergrowth quickly with no permanent damage to mature trees. In farmland, controlled burns could create firebreaks that keep the monster blazes from feeding on themselves.

Dominion generates creativity, innovation, order, and plenty.

Why aren’t controlled burns and managed fires the policy? Ask almost any Western fire manager and he’s likely to sigh in frustration. To adequately clear out forests in California alone would require burning upward of 1 million acres per year. The current average is about 20,000. Even for that, it can take months to jump the environmental hoops, and a planned burn can get shut down within hours because of smog levels or complaints from neighbors. And there’s always liability: Nobody pays for canceling a burn, but a fire that jumps its boundaries can consume jobs and reputations, as well as millions of dollars. Speaking of millions, most of California’s firefighting is contracted out to private firms, and all-out warfare is much more profitable than strategic burns.

Added to all that is environmentalism’s quasi-­religious attitude toward nature that demonizes all forms of development, even to responsible forestry. “Social political realities get in the way of doing a lot of what we need to do,” admitted one Forest Service research ecologist in a ProPublica report.

“What we need to do” reflects a principle found in Genesis: dominion. The earth is the Lord’s, but from the beginning He granted humans the privilege and responsibility of caring for it—which means caring about it. To the extreme environmentalist, dominion means domination, full stop. It’s much less than that, and also much more. Dominion generates creativity, innovation, order, and plenty. It’s the unseen foundation for science and technology. It’s participation in the ongoing creation narrative, open to any human being with a mind and a skill.

Environmental activism often casts humanity as the villain against a victim who’s starting to fight back. “Mother Earth is angry”—we should huddle in our urban enclaves and let her simmer down.

Mother Earth is a prodigal parent, as anyone knows who ever tried to clear out a septic pond (don’t ask). The Fall that set humans and nature at odds didn’t cancel the dominion contract—it just made it more fickle and fraught. While humans can be the cause of environmental degradation, they are more often the cure, gifted with the ability to consider and self-­correct. One reason the Eastern U.S. doesn’t have massive, chronic wildfires is not just because it’s wetter, but because much more of it is privately owned. Farmers and foresters generally take better care of what belongs to them, benefiting the land as well as the landowner.

Federal land-management policy needs to change, but you still have dominion in your own backyard. Even a well-tended flower bed pleases man and glorifies the Lord.

Janie B. Cheaney Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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