John Block: Forest Fires

By former USDA Secretary John R. Block

There aren’t any forest fires here in the east near Washington, D.C. No raging fires near our farm in Illinois. But the front pages of the Washington Post and the Washington Times both tell us the west is burning. Thousands are fleeing wild fires – forests and range land burned to a crisp. Earlier in the year, 1.2 million acres of range and farmland went up in smoke in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Cattle herds were burned up. The cattle that survived don’t have the hay or grass for feed.

Further to the west, hot weather and drought are drying out the Forest Service land (under the U.S. Department of Agriculture). USDA is responsible for 190M acres and the Bureau of Land Management has 70M acres.

I interviewed Bill Imbergamo, Executive Director of the Federal Forest Reserve Coalition. He updated me on the severity of the situation. In Wyoming, the Medicine Bow National Forest fire more than doubled overnight. The Dixie National Forest in Utah has been burning old bug-killed spruce trees that the Forest Service did not harvest. Northern California, Southern California, and Colorado have thousands of acres of baked landscapes.

Now, we all understand that there is risk of fire when it gets too dry and hot, but do we have to accept this level of destruction?  Mr. Imbergamo says “no.” I agree. We need to manage our forest land better. Dead trees should be taken out. Thinning the amount of trees and brush will limit the amount that can burn. In some cases, “controlled burning” is the answer. Often times, when the Forest Service tries to do the right thing, they can expect a torrent of lawsuits. Animal rights groups don’t want anyone to do anything. It might disturb the spotted owl. There could be some other endangered species nesting in the woods. In the Lassen National Forest in California, they said they had to protect the Black-backed woodpecker.

Our priority should be our people, their homes and lives. Even woodpeckers don’t want their forest to burn.

You might think that with the millions of acres being burned, and with the misery inflicted on our citizens, that we could find the will and resources to do something.

John Block was Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1981-1985, where he played a key role in the development of the 1985 Farm Bill.  If you would like to review his radio shows going back more than 20 years, visit

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