The let-burn fire policy, in existence for 16 years at Yellowstone National Park, should be re-evaluated, Interior Secretary Donald Hodel said Friday.
But according to Hodel, that will be the challenge for his successor because he doesn't plan to be part of the next administration.In a speech at the Hinckley Institute of Politics, Hodel said he would not serve in the administration of Republican George Bush because the new president should have a Cabinet that bears "his stamp."
Hodel, who was in Salt Lake City stumping for Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, plans to return to the West when President Reagan winds up his term in January. He doesn't have a job lined up yet, but he made it clear it won't be meeting the controversial challenges of the Interior Department.
Hodel was secretary of energy until 1985, when he was shifted to the Interior Department to replace William Clark. Hodel candidly admitted he preferred the lower profile he enjoyed as energy secretary.
At the Interior Department, he said, he was immediately thrust into the fierce battles between environmentalists and developers. Then this summer he battled the heated controversy surrounding the fire that charred Yellowstone National Park.
"In the national parks we do not permit timber harvest. Therefore the forest will get older and older and older," he explained.
Hodel pointed out that over the past eight years, Yellowstone has suffered a significant infestation of pine beetles.
"When you fly over the area you see large areas in the standing forest that are nothing but dead standing snags," he said. "That actually was the tinder box lit by the fires."
Hodel said because of unusually low humidity, combined with high winds and lightning storms, the fires got out of control.
"The argument has been made, and I think with some complete justification in the national park, that if you do not have a fire periodically in those areas, you will simply have a snag forest for the foreseeable future - hardly what people think of as the beautiful Yellowstone forest," he said.
For 16 years the let-burn policy has been in place, and Hodel says "it worked fairly well."
"But we haven't had a year like this in Yellowstone. This year we didn't know for days on end if we were going to save Old Faithful Inn, or Grant or Mammoth Village, Canyon Village, and towns outside like Silvergate and Cook City.
"It seems to me that the policy can't be said to have worked well as a policy," he said. "It may do good things, but it's not a good policy if it means we have to spend $100 million and at one point have over 9,000 firefighters in Yellowstone in order to keep from burning up facilities that we say need tobe protected."
Hodel said included in a policy change will be the removal of fuel loads from around those facilities. The fires, he said, should be kept from the structures but still allowed to burn.
"If you don't have fires in Yellowstone, over time in those heavily forest areas you are going to have a dead forest."
Hodel also addressed one of the issues he's repeatedly encountered as Interior secretary _ the issue of logging in commercial forests on federal land.
"There is opposition on the grounds that cutting 200 to 500 acres will result in erosion, but burning 1,100,000 acres in Yellowstone National Park is good . . . or that clearing 500 acres is going to reroute migration patterns of wildlife, but burning a million acres in Yellowstone is good," he said.
Hodel says what remains unanswered is the question of whether the burnt trees should be logged while they are perfectly good lumber, or whether they should be left to become a source of beetle-infestation and rot and therefore have no commercial value or benefit to the adjacent wilderness.
Touching on other matters, Hodel said he tends to favor Gov. Norm Bngerter's proposal to trade state land for acreage on the north shore of Lake Powell in southern Utah. But he wants to ensure that the land will be properly developed.