The "let-burn" policy of the National Park Service may be responsible for a new wildfire - this one in Washington, D.C.
Three western senators are calling for the firing of National Park Service Director William Penn Mott Jr., whom they hold responsible for letting wildfires in Wyoming and Montana rage out of control, turning much of Yellowstone National Park to ashes.The requested firing would do little to resolve the problems that led to the Yellowstone disaster.
The imposition of the "let-burn" policy is a good example of federal adherence to rigid bureaucratic polices without regard to special circumstances. Too often, critical decisions are made at locations far removed from the site impacted by those decisions. This was the case in Yellowstone.
The "let-burn" policy basically is a good one. Limited forest fires can clean out overgrown areas and start new growth - nature's own way of tidying up. In the past 16 years the policy has been in effect, the average loss from fires in Yellowstone has been only 250 acres.
But there are times where exceptions must be made to almost any policy. That's when the local man-on-the scene ought to be able to make a decision without going all the way to Washington to argue for an exception. The way the Washington bureaucracy moves, that could take too long in any emergency.
Searing drought conditions and an accumulation of dead wood and foliage combined to make Yellowstone a powder keg. Thirteen fires were spawned in a relatively short time. Five of those were lightning-caused which invoked the "let-burn" policy, requiring naturally occurring fires be allowed to burn themselves out.
The stage was set for disaster and disaster resulted. To compound it by firing someone in Washington will only set the stage for future disasters.
If something good is to come from the ashes of Yellowstone, let it be a realization in Washington of the need for local involvement in decision-making processes. Giving needed leeway to regional federal officials to work with state and local officials when exceptional conditions exist is only prudent.
There is no question that rigid guidelines are needed to provide general guidance to federal agencies and to protect programs from abuse. And, there is no question that those guidelines should be conscientiously followed where possible.
What is questionable is a policy that provides no leeway, makes no provision for the exceptional circumstance.
Even granted this needed leeway, local officials will find themselves subjected to the "glass house" syndrome of 20-20 hindsight that has accompanied the Yellowstone disaster. Mistakes will be made, human beings are not perfect. But learn from the mistakes, don't pin them on a convenient scapegoat.