The scale of the wildfires in my home state is simply too staggering for most observers to comprehend.

As I write this on Monday night, 400,000 acres have burned. More than 1,100 homes have burned, and more than a dozen deaths are attributed to the fire. The aftermath will bring new challenges, including the mud slides and erosion problems certain to follow in the wake of the first rains.

This is the year of California’s big burn. In years past it has been South Dakota, Arizona and Colorado. Other fires will follow, and each time the public will be fed a steady line of excuses for the destruction.

Of course, fire has always been with us. What has not been a feature of the West, however, has been the perversion of land-management policies to extremist environmental agendas.

Serious students of land use in the West know that since 1992, the aggressive expansion of the mandates of the federal Endangered Species Act has led to a crazy quilt approach of federal dictates, many of which are simply incomprehensible. The bewildering array of designations of critical habitat for a variety of species and the threat of federal criminal law violations for illegal “take” of any of a growing list of species has led to a dramatic curtailment of habitat management that has allowed fuel loads to skyrocket throughout the region.

Similarly, the radical expansion of the National Environmental Policy Act as a tool of obstruction has mirrored the rise of the “no growth” movement among environmental activists. Logging plans are routinely challenged and die a death of delay and obstruction. The predictable consequences are infernos that feed on the years of neglect.

When the media arrive at the scene of the disaster, they hear of Santa Ana winds and drought, but never of the relentless opposition to common-sense management practices that could limit the destruction. They never learn that the California Gnatcatcher, to use just one example, was listed as threatened a decade ago despite a robust population here and in Mexico, or that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service routinely refuses to propose aggressive brush-management practices that would allow local governments and landowners to proactively clear habitat that might house the birds. Rather, the Service continues to issue sweeping designations of “critical habitat,” the publication of which complicates the management and use of land that doesn’t even support gnatcatchers.

For more than a decade, the leadership of the “resource” agencies at the state and local level has included numerous individuals who lack the ability or the motivation to serve the communities that need innovation and action, not more grand plans and environmental documents. President Bush and Gov. Schwarzenegger would both do themselves great good with the public if they embraced reform of these government bureaucracies that have once again failed to protect either the public or the environment from disaster.

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