Driving to Ruidoso after the Little Bear Fire last year, we passed a meadow brimming with hay bales about to become mulch on burn-scarred land.

Up north, Santa Clara Pueblo officials figure it will take $100 million and 100 years to restore Santa Clara Canyon after fire devastated half the watershed.

The average westerner is relinquishing the notion of our forests as a pristine resource and getting used to the reality of an overgrown, parched and buggy tinder box, dangerous as a warehouse full of old dynamite.

We don't lack for solutions. In fact, there are so many loud voices, that's part of the problem. Another is that policy makers don't recognize that the real cost of these fires goes beyond firefighting.

Those are two points made by the nonpartisan, nonprofit National Institute for the Elimination of Catastrophic Wildfire. Its organizers and supporters are retired forestry professionals and firefighters.

In a nutshell, the institute sees a federal Forest Service that's paralyzed by a dense patchwork of conflicting laws, decisions made by political appointees with no experience on the ground, poor morale, under-staffing, and budget cuts. The fires grow bigger, and the funding grows smaller.

The regulatory system and statutes are so complex they're routinely manipulated by environmentalists and their lawyers but incomprehensible to the average citizen. Some laws actually reward environmentalists for winning, which means every lawsuit has a potential for jackpots with no down side.


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On the other side of the fence, conservatives refuse to discuss the impacts of climate change, citing their own legal interpretations.

The Forest Service, with no internal compass, once did the bidding of the wood-products industry and now dances to the tune of environmentalists.

Former Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas in 2001 framed the situation in historical terms: "Fierce in battle, many of the eco-warriors have been unable to come to grips with the consequences of victory and are now reduced to wandering about the old battlefields "bayoneting the wounded.' Their counterparts from the resource extraction community, likewise, cannot come to terms with defeat and hold "ghost dances' to bring back the good old days when they were the undisputed Kings of the West."

I heard a version of this one day in the House Agriculture and Water Resources Committee, as legislators discussed a way to "get the attention of the Forest Service."

The subject was House Memorial 65, asking the Forest Service to "engage with New Mexico state agencies and local governments in meaningful watershed health planning and management." It also asks the Attorney General and State Forester to enforce the federal government's obligation to protect watersheds.

Committee members worried that the state is only reacting to wildfire. The state Forestry Division's Office of Watershed Management has gone from four employees to one.

"I've watched over the last 10 or 15 years, and we're kind of pushing the federal government, but there's not enough money to throw at this," said Rep. Don Tripp, R-Socorro.

"Going forward, we'll see more catastrophic fires. Overall, the problem is so vast. We saw that last year in Catron County and in Ruidoso. If they could allow some logging to go on again, but they're all afraid of lawsuits."

So, here you have shades of "bayoneting the wounded" and the "ghost dance." This isn't useful.

Recently Rep. Steve Pearce, R-NM, cited an institute study to flog the Forest Service for its handling of the Little Bear Fire. The report described the agency's inability to "implement sound forest management practices," for the reasons mentioned above without faulting its performance in the Little Bear Fire. If Pearce read the institute's papers, he'd see that instead of Monday-morning quarterbacking, he should find money for tree-thinning.

The institute's solution calls for nothing less than a Congressional overhaul of the U. S. Forest Service and the legal fires consuming it.

Sherry Robinson is a New Mexico journalist who began her career in 1976 and has served as assistant business editor and columnist with the Albuquerque Journal, editor of New Mexico Business Weekly and business editor of the Albuquerque Tribune.