President calls for increased thinning of fire prone national forests and overhaul of major environmental laws.
Amid one of the worst fire seasons on record, President Bush has proposed the Healthy Forests Initiative to combat the worsening conditions of national forests. Bush responded to leaders of Western states who pointed to the failures of the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan.
Although the Northwest Forest Plan protected old growth trees, it failed to deliver on other key issues — mainly the continuation of a sustainable forest economy and improving forest health. According to the U.S. Forest Service, litigation and procedural delays prevented the plan from being implemented as intended.
The Northwest Forest Plan called for about 1 billion board feet of timber per year to be released for harvest. In fact, timber production has fallen from a high of 889 million board feet in fiscal year 1997 to just 308 million board feet offered for sale in FY 2001. Less than 40% of the planned timber volume was offered for sale in 2001. Meanwhile, forest health has worsened. Currently, 190 million acres of federal lands are at increased risk of catastrophic wildfires.
Wildfire ravaged Western states once again in the summer of 2002, especially Colorado and Arizona. Other fire prone states included the Dakotas, Kansas, Nebraska, and, in the East, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. Years of little or no forest management, including fighting smaller fires that should have been allowed to burn, have led to a massive build-up of brush and undergrowth, creating ideal conditions for catastrophic crown fires. “We currently face the worst forest health crisis in the history of the national forest system,” said Mike Klein of the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA).
Figures released by the Bush administration indicate that many ponderosa pine forests are 15 times denser than they were a century ago. Where 25 to 35 trees once grew on each acre of forest, now more than 500 trees are crowded together.
As conditions worsen, fires burn with greater speed and intensity. Scientists, industry, preservationists, lawmakers, and forest managers all agree the national forests are in a crisis situation, but they disagree on how to respond.
According to the president’s plan, wildfires have resulted in:
• Risk of Human Life — Large, severe wildfires create dangerous conditions for both firefighters and the public.
• Increased Air Pollution — Smoke from wildfires can significantly affect air quality in neighboring communities. This year, Denver experienced the highest level of fine particulates ever recorded in the state.
• Property Damage — Thousands of homes and other buildings are destroyed by wildfires, causing losses in the millions of dollars. Tens of thousands of people were forced to flee their homes this summer because of wildfires.
• Reduced Tourism — Smoke from the Big Elk Fire this summer reduced tourism in Rocky Mountain National Park, depressing the local economy.
• Damage to Municipal Watersheds — Wildfires degrade water quality, decrease storage capacity, and jeopardize the physical structure of municipal watersheds.
• Damaged Fisheries — Critical trout fisheries throughout the West and salmon and steelhead fisheries in the Pacific Northwest suffer from increased water temperatures, sedimentation and changes in water quality and chemistry.
• Destroyed Endangered Species Habitat — Fires destroyed 125,000 to 150,000 acres of spotted owl habitat during the Biscuit fire in Oregon.
• Soil Sterilization — Top soils exposed to extreme heat become water-repellant, and soil nutrients may be lost. Fire can burn as deep as 12 inches into the soil; it can take decades for forest floor to be restored.
• Soil Erosion — Fire removes the protective covering of foliage and dead organic matter, which leaves the soil fully exposed to erosion by wind and water. Soil erosion is accelerated, causing landslides and threatening aquatic habitat.
• Spread of Invasive Plant Species — Non-native plant species frequently move in and occupy burned areas. When weeds become established, they can dominate the plant cover over broad landscapes. Fighting weeds can be costly and difficult.
President Bush’s plan tackles bureaucratic hurdles by reducing the number of overlapping environmental reviews. It also removes needless administrative obstacles and provides authority to allow timber projects to proceed without delay when consistent with the Northwest Forest Plan.
The president’s plan calls for establishing long-term, stewardship contracts with the private sector. Stewardship contracts would allow contractors to keep wood products in exchange for the service of thinning trees and brush and removing dead wood. Long-term contracts would provide companies with the incentive to invest in equipment and infrastructure to harvest and process trees. Small logging operations would be the primary beneficiary of government stewardship contracts, according to Mike.
Another part of the Bush plan would be an education program targeting rural homeowners, drawing their attention to the dangers of wildfire and precautions they can take.
The heart of the Bush plan would be actively managing forests and reducing fuel loads. Using a variety of methods from thinning to prescribed burns, the White House plan would treat high danger areas first.
The Bush administration initiative would operate within the structure of an agreement reached in the spring between 12 Western states and the federal government. That agreement called for more local involvement in forest management decisions, active forest management, and more timely decision-making by the federal government.
Preservationist groups blasted the president’s plan, claiming it would eliminate environmental protections while failing to reduce the risk of forest fire. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, The Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, the White House plan would use the fear of wildfire to circumvent environmental safeguards and line the pockets of corporate timber interests. Preservationists groups have offered their own plan, which calls for thinning forest fringe areas in order to protect homes and communities but leaving the majority of the forests as it is. The plan offered by environmentalists would remove brush and small trees and fireproof buildings. They also want to shift firefighting resources from remote areas where most of the blazes start to special zones near communities.
The groups remain opposed to commercial logging. In fact, their plan calls for protecting “our ancient and wild forest from logging and logging roads.”
Preservationists favor government spending to fight major fires, start small fires, remove small trees, educate homeowners, and shuffle paperwork. But they oppose allowing the government to recoup some of its costs by selling timber.
Preservationists continue to beat the same old drum. The still adhere to a policy of zero timber harvests while camouflaging it in new terms. They believe anything that happens naturally — including catastrophic wildfire — is okay as long as we leave the forests alone.
Now, this summer’s wildfires have renewed the focus and public debate over the management of national forests — and the environmental lobby. The preservationists have been on the defensive — are trying to hide from the fact that their lawsuits and other legal and administrative wrangling have tied the hands of the Forest Service, creating tinder boxes in our national forests.
The opposition by environmentalists to logging on federal lands has contributed directly to the unhealthy, fire prone conditions of the national forests, according to Holly Fretwell, a research associate for the Political Economy Research Center (PERC). (PERC, a Montana-based think tank, is dedicated to using free market principles to resolve environmental problems.) “The fact is that environmental organizations have opposed logging, including restorative thinning, for years,” noted Holly, who specializes in forest management issues. “Their opposition has played a deadly role in helping the fuel build-up to reach dangerous levels.”
“Environmentalists refuse to accept that healthy forests just don’t happen,” said Mike. “You have to manage them…Local land managers need to be in the driver seat on this issue.”
Preservationist groups have found themselves on the defensive in the public debate. “The claims…that it is somehow new or out of character for the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society to support fire prevention activities on the national forests is a blatant falsehood,” the Sierra Club said in a statement.
Preservationists point to a report by the federal General Accounting Office (GAO) that found less than 1% of recent hazardous fuels reduction projects had been slowed by appeals. However, the author of the GAO report has said that environmental groups have misrepresented and misused the report. The projects analyzed by the GAO already had gone through the environmental assessment and appeals process, so very few would likely come under further scrutiny.
According to the Forest Service, between January 2001 and July 2002, 48% of all projects to reduce fuel loads were appealed. In northern Idaho and Montana, 100% of projects to reduce fuel loads by mechanical means — logging — were appealed.
Even when preservationists concede that some trees must be removed, there are differences over what size trees should be cut. “What is logging versus what is thinning?” asked Holly. “Everybody has their own idea what the definitions should be.”
Preservationists tend to view commercial logging — which they oppose — as harvesting any tree over 12 inches in diameter. Forest managers, scientists and the timber industry want to apply less arbitrary standards and allow more local decision making.
The approach encouraged by preservationists may spare some homes and communities, but it leaves the underlying causes of wildfire untreated. “These fires start far out in the forests in overly dense stands,” explained Mike. If environmentalists get their way, wildfires could get worse.
Federal land managers must comply with thousands of pages of laws and regulations before thinning forests or undertaking other projects to reduce fuel loads. For example, it may take up to six months to prepare environmental planning documents for even routine prescribed fire treatments; environmental plans for more complicated projects may take two years or longer to prepare.
An example of the hurdles faced by land managers is the fiasco now taking place in federal forest lands near Flagstaff, Ariz. The Sierra Club and the Forest Guardians, among others, appealed a thinning project that is desperately needed and supported by a consortium of federal, state and local organizations known as the Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership. Scientists recommended thinning trees up to 24 inches in diameter. However, in order to appease environmentalists, the partnership called for thinning trees up to 16 inches in diameter, which would leave 60 to 80 trees per acre after thinning. The project has been mired in controversy and appeals for four years while the forest remained a tinderbox. The project has just now started to move forward.
The president’s initiative is likely to backfire, according to Holly, causing a public relations headache for the Bush administration and the Forest Service. “The president’s plan is a band-aid,” she said. “It’s politics as usual. It is the ‘let’s just throw more money at this’ approach.” PERC favors the development of pilot forest sites that would be under local control in order to test various methods of land management.
Underlining the forest health issue is a deep philosophical rift between the liberal East and conservative West. Western states want local control. The liberal establishment of the East wants to preserve vast areas of the West. Most people see wildfires on TV and are not sure whom to believe when it comes to solving the problem, and Eastern liberals have political clout.
The threat of wildfire this summer even had Congressional allies of preservationists changing their tune. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a friend of environmental groups,
skillfully maneuvered legislation to allow local management of the tourist-rich Black Hills National Forest in his home state of South Dakota. The Democrat quietly attached an amendment to exempt timber sales and other fire prevention treatment projects from environmental review, public comment, appeals and judicial review. Daschle threw a sop to preservationists by including language to designate 3,600 acres as wilderness.
Environmental groups, especially the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, jumped to Daschle’s defense. “This is a unique solution to a very unique situation on the Black Hill National Forest that is strictly limited in size and magnitude,” wrote Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club.
The only thing unique about is that Daschle applied common sense in order to protect federal forest lands in his own state from fire, but the preservationists could not come out and bash a key ally. In fact, leaders of other Western states saw easily through the hypocrisy, arguing that what was good enough for Daschle and his constituents should be good enough for the rest of the West.
Unfortunately, it comes down to politics. “Public land management is totally politicized,” wrote Linda Platts, associate editor of PERC’s newsletter. “Trained professionals, supported by biologists, botanists, forest ecologists and a host of other scientific experts, are often taking orders from Washington politicians who know nothing about forest health.”
The situation will only get worse if national forests continue to be managed by the shifting of political winds instead of sound management principles. The Sierra Club proclaimed in a recent ad, “We believe it is time to stop pointing fingers and to find common ground.” Let’s hope for the sake of America’s forests that this time they mean what they say.