There Is A Train Wreck In Our Future: Can We Avoid It?

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James Peterson of Evergreen Magazine describes the forest health challenge facing America”s forests. He encourages active management based on sound science.

(Editor’s Note: James D. Petersen is publisher of Evergreen Magazine and executive director of The Evergreen Foundation. The following article is based on a keynote speech he delivered to the Montana Wood Products Association earlier this year.)

I don’t think most people living in the West today really understand how profoundly their lives will be changed if our government doesn’t soon begin to deal with these wildfires on more meaningful economic and ecological scales. Having watched this tragedy unfold for more than 30 years, there is no doubt in my mind that life as most westerners know it could come to a tragic end over the next decade or two.
My own emotions still deny the reality of losing forests and woodlands that have been so much a part of my family’s heritage here in the West. I cannot picture life in the West without green forests, sunny blue skies, frosty alpine mornings, gin clear streams, fly rods and wildlife to photograph: all touchstones in my life for nearly 60 years.
But the science here is pretty straightforward: there are too many trees in our forests and they are dying by the millions. The listed causes of death are drought, insects, diseases and nutrient starvation. But in truth they are victims of a head-on collision between two conflicting government polities — a policy to preserve forests in no management or minimum management reserves and, concurrently, a policy to exclude wildfire from forests the public loves.
What we have failed to recognize is that preserving forests requires that we care for them. As an old Tennessee forester friend once observed,
“The problem with leaving forests to nature, as so many seem to want to do, is that we can’t control the outcome. We get whatever nature serves up, which can be pretty devastating at times. But with forestry we have options, and a degree of predictability not found in nature.”
The debate in Congress over legislation to revamp management of national forests really comes down to a choice between two alternatives: we can — as a society — assume responsibility for applying science in the management of our federal forests — thinning and harvesting to control growth and the limits of natural disturbance – or we can abdicate our responsibility and accept nature’s consequences.
The stakes here are very high. Eighty percent of the water consumed in homes and businesses across the 11 western states rises in great, forested basins that are now burning or will soon burn.
Depending on whose estimate you accept, 70 to 90 million acres of federal forestland are now in Condition Class 2 or 3: meaning the risk of catastrophic fire is moderate and getting worse, or the acres in question are ready to burn. It is worth noting that most of the acreage in ready-to-burn Condition Class 3 includes critical habitat for salmon, steelhead, bull trout, grizzly bears, spotted owls and marbled murrelets, species listed as threatened under the Federal Endangered Species Act.
There is a train wreck in our future — and I fear it is not far ahead of us. Conditions are ideal for a repeat of the Great 1910 Fire. In a mere 48 hours, three million acres were lost in a wind-driven firestorm that blew hundreds of small fires into a wall of flames that wiped out several communities, killing 87 firefighters. Across the alpine reaches that join northern Idaho and western Montana you can still find fire scars.
There are, this morning, more project-scale wildfires burning in Montana than at any time in our state’s history. No one should be surprised given the fact that mortality exceeds growth in most of our state’s national forests. Idaho’s national forests are in no better shape. Nor are forests in Oregon, California, Washington, Wyoming, Arizona or New Mexico. So the question, “Can we avoid this train wreck?”
First I want to discuss President Bush’s Healthy Forests Initiative. As some of you know, The Evergreen Foundation, which I direct, has played an important behind the scenes role in advancing the President’s initiative. What you may not know is that the forest health debate was quite literally invented on the pages of our Evergreen Magazine nearly 13 years ago. Since then, we have published five special editions focusing on the underlying ecological and policy-related causes of the wildfire calamity that is sweeping the West’s national forests.
Those of you who manufacture the nation’s wood and paper products owe President Bush a great debt. He has transformed your concerns about wildfire and forest health into a true national issue, thus becoming only the second President in history to point out the fact that healthy forests and healthy communities go hand in hand. The first was conservationist Teddy Roosevelt, who laid out his vision in a speech at a Society of American Foresters meeting in Washington, D.C. in 1903. Here is what he said:
“And now, first and foremost, you can never afford to forget for a moment what is the object of our forest policy. That object is not to preserve forests because they are beautiful, though that is good in itself; nor because they are refuges for the wild creatures of the wilderness, though that, too, is good in itself; but the primary object of our forest policy, as of the land policy of the United States, is the making of prosperous homes. It is part of the traditional policy of home making in our country. Every other consideration comes as secondary. You, yourselves, have got to keep this practical object before your minds; to remember that a forest which contributes nothing to the wealth, progress or safety of the country is of no interest to the government and should be of little interest to the forester. Your attention must be directed to the preservation of forests, not as an end in itself, but as the means of preserving and increasing the prosperity of the nation.”
When President Bush made his decision to fly to Medford, Oregon in August 2002 to visit with firefighters and — more importantly — unveil his Healthy Forests Initiative, he did so against the recommendations of advisors who counseled that the wildfire debate held too many downside political risks. And when it became clear that his mind was made up someone asked why he was taking the risk. “Because,” he answered, “it is the right thing to do.”
As earlier noted, we have been at the forefront in the wildfire debate since it started. And there is no doubt in my mind that we have done much to help advance public and congressional understanding of both the problem and the solution to this crisis.
I experienced a twinge of cynicism when President Bush went to Medford. It was that same old sinking feeling that comes with knowing that politics will probably again trump science and history.
So I asked a man who is close to the President if he thought he was serious about what he said in Medford. I will not soon forget his answer to my question. He said, and I quote, “The President is personally and morally committed to this issue. No matter what happens this White House will not jerk the rug out from under those who are trying to help the President advance his Healthy Forests Initiative.”
Looking back over the last year — measuring the President’s commitment by his actions and words — can anyone doubt that he is serious about dealing with the underlying political and environmental causes of the West’s wildfire crisis? I certainly don’t. And you shouldn’t either.
There is clear evidence that many journalists are having second thoughts about radical environmentalism and its place in American life. Even the Portland Oregonian, historically a harsh critic of forestry and the industry, has published some very solid pieces that lend thoughtful support to what the President is proposing.
There is also clear evidence that the public no longer accepts radical environmentalism’s claims carte blanche. I am privy to the results of some impressive focus group work done in recent months in several of the nation’s most strategic cities. Among them: Memphis, Tennessee, Al Gore’s backyard, and Portland, home base for Oregon’s two U.S. Senators, Republican Gordon Smith and Democrat Ron Wyden.
In Memphis, 25 voters — including 12 that voted for Mr. Gore and 12 that voted for Mr. Bush — were briefed on the underlying causes of the nation’s forest health crisis, then given an opportunity to discuss management options ranging from doing nothing to implementing a comprehensive long term thinning and restoration program. At the close of discussion they were asked to vote for or against restoration. The vote was 23-2 for restoration.
After the vote was taken, Gore voters were told that President Bush — a president they did not vote for — supported forest restoration. Did any of them want to change their vote? No one wanted to reverse course.
They were then told that logging and timber companies might profit from doing the restoration work. Again, did any of Mr. Gore’s supporters want to change his or her vote? Again, not one wanted to change his or her vote.
The same demographic profile, weighted a bit to reflect the larger role women play in Oregon politics, yielded the same result in the Portland focus group. But there were three additional surprises. First, participants made the direct connection between environmental extremism, timber sale appeals and litigation. Second, participants believe judges should give equal weight to the short-term risks and long-term benefits associated with forest restoration. And finally, while participants understand the safety aspects of thinning around homes and communities they also believe forested watersheds and wildlife habitat that lie well beyond communities should be thinned too.
To date, focus groups have been conducted in six cities: Washington, D.C., Denver, Phoenix, Sacramento and, of course, Memphis and Portland. The results have been the same everywhere — a fact that has me wondering if the big environmental outfits aren’t out doing some honest polling and focus group work of their own. If they are they know what we know, which may help explain their silence. What do you say when you know your credibility is plummeting and, even worse, you discover that only a handful of Americans wants to follow you into the carcinogenic haze and over the wildfire precipice?
The federal government’s failure to deal more aggressively with the underlying causes of these horrible fires is crippling two of our state’s major economic engines: timber and tourism, both of which depend to a great extent on the presence of healthy forests.
Where our wildfire crisis is concerned, there is more than enough blame to go around. I have long felt that the industry’s old “get out the cut” mentality served the public no better than the Sierra Club’s “zero cut” mentality. It is a historic fact that Congress has never appropriated sufficient funding for the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to do the thinning and stand tending work so desperately needed in all of the West’s national forests, work that private landowners do as a matter of routine.
So we need to stop pointing fingers.
Leadership in every quarter is needed.
Congress must act.
To keep what is left of our small, family-owned sawmilling industry alive we need to promptly salvage commercially valuable trees we are losing to wildfire. Then we need to replant the land so that it can begin to heal itself. Where we’ve done this, natural recovery has moved along at a much faster pace than in areas where we’ve done nothing.
Of course, prompt salvage will not be possible unless Congress bulletproofs these projects from appeal and litigation. This is bound to leave a bad taste in the mouths of a lot of people who remain skeptical about the President’s motives, but if the West loses what is left of its small, independently owned sawmilling industry, forest restoration will remain an impossible dream because there won’t be anyone left to buy, process or market the government’s trees, to say nothing of its biomass.
I think the federal government’s fixation with small trees is problematic. For just as communities need people of all ages to sustain themselves, so too do forests need trees of all ages to sustain themselves. The only way we can achieve age class diversity in our forests is to manage for it, to make certain we always have a sufficient number of young, middle age and old trees. Today’s sapling is tomorrow’s old growth — and tomorrow’s old growth is the next day’s woody debris.
A federal forest management regime based solely on picking up the pieces after devastating wildfires strike does nothing to keep at risk forests green or promote age class diversity or biological diversity. We have to get serious about caring for [managing] the public’s forest assets. Otherwise, we will lose them.
We need to overcome our fear of large manufacturing facilities. The public loves the little guy, and I understand this. So do I. But the fact is the amount of wood fiber that is growing — and dying — in Western national forests is sufficient to supply several large facilities without hurting the little guy. I often remind people that Southwest Forest Industries, and later Stone Container, ran a pulp mill at Snowflake, Arizona, day and night for more than 40 years, and never made a dent in northern Arizona’s stand density crisis. Today that mill supplies itself with recycled pulp railed in from Canada. Meanwhile, the Southwest’s pine beetle-wildfire crisis gets worse every year.
Over the last 10 years I’ve toured and photographed federally sponsored demonstration projects in eight western states, some dating back more than 30 years. And I am here to tell you that thinning works. The visible results are quite powerful, so much so that in the Southwest, where most of the more recent demonstrations have occurred, local environmentalists are now leading the charge, demanding that forests be thinned before it’s too late. What do they see that radical environmentalists cannot comprehend?
The same spirit of cooperation is flourishing in Central Oregon. Near Bend, 12,500 acres are being restored using in combination the two most effective tools we have for reducing the risk of catastrophic fire: thinning and prescribed fire. The leadership in this remarkable effort came from Friends of the Metolius, a local conservation group. Once again I ask, “What do they see that radical environmentalists cannot comprehend?”
One of the most important mental hurdles the American people need to cross is simply this: even if the federal government never again sells a stick of timber to a private company it will still be necessary to manage publicly-owned forests, to periodically harvest trees in ways that replicate nature’s rhythms, thereby controlling insect and disease infestations and the frequency and intensity of wildfires that are polluting our air and water, destroying fish and wildlife habitat, recreation opportunity and homes. Why not sell these trees into consumer markets to reduce the cost of restoration?
Finally, one of the most important mental hurdles our federal resource management agencies need to cross is the risk management hurdle. The plain fact is they are not managing for the large-scale ecological risks associated with insect and disease infestations or inevitable wildfire. They have instead acquiesced to the screwball idea that confronting risks in our forests is more risky that doing nothing. I am not aware of any scientific evidence that supports this theory. Nowhere else in our society is such foolishness tolerated: not in crime prevention, homeland security, national defense or health care. Why then are we tolerating it in our forests?
If Congress is unwilling to step up to its social and environmental responsibilities, then I am here to tell you that the national forest system should be sold to the highest bidder before it is too late. Somewhere out there are people who recognize the great storehouse of intrinsic and tangible wealth these great forests hold. And somewhere out there is a talent pool filled with people capable of pulling the West’s great forests back from the brink of ecological collapse.
The public deserves better. Taxpayers deserve better. We all deserve better. But does Congress care?
I’ll close this morning with the wisdom of Alston Chase, Ph.D. man of letters and author of Playing God in Yellowstone, a blockbuster book that traces the evolution of modern day radical environmentalism. In a 1990 interview, I asked Alston what lesson readers could take from his book. Here is his answer:
“The lesson in Playing God is that there is no such thing as leaving nature alone. People are part of creation. We do not have the option of choosing not to be stewards of the land. We must master the art and science of good stewardship. Unfortunately a good many environmentalists still do not understand that the only way to preserve nature is to manage nature.”

(Editor’s Note: In late November, the Senate and House of Representatives passed a version of the President’s Healthy Forests Initiative. To contact Evergreen Magazine, visit the Web site at, call (406) 837-0966, fax (406) 837-1385, or e-mail