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Burns sounds alarm over forest crisis

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Is $11,250,000 a lot of money? If you are Montana’s junior senator Conrad Burns, that’s what it’ll cost to only partially heal what he believes is the western states’ national forest health “crisis.”

Sen. Burns held a Forest Health Summit at Flathead High School last Saturday to address the forest health issues raised in a General Accounting Office (GAO) report titled, “Western National Forests: A Cohesive Strategy is Needed to Address Catastrophic Wildfire Threats.” Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), Gov. Marc Racicot, and Rep. Rick Hill were also present to lend clout to the topic.

At issue was the health of some 39 million acres of national forest lands spread across the Western states. Fire used to keep these forest naturally thinned, but fire suppression over the last 50 years has changed these lands, with the bigger trees losing out to the crowd of younger Douglas fir. Now, Sen. Burns has suggested, all these millions of acres are in imminent threat of conflagration.

But not so, said forester Steve Barrett, who was on the summit’s scientific panel. According to Barrett, the GAO report “suffers from overly broad-brushed strokes to give the impression that all our forests are suffering from some huge forest health crisis. This just isn’t the case.”

Meanwhile, timber supplies to local mills are at historically low levels. Only 6 million board feet of lumber were cut on the Flathead National Forest in 1999 out of a target volume of 18.7 million. Perhaps, it was suggested by the summit heads, the national forests could be opened to less restrictive cutting and take care of fire hazards at the same time.

As in any staged event, the drama of last weekend’s summit was saved for the final moments. Sen. Larry Craig, who also serves on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, appealed for a solution, blaming the Forest Service for using a “process without structure” that leads to unpredictable timber volumes for mills and communities. He also blasted the environmental establishment in Washington for shooting down his efforts to introduce substantive legislation.

Placing the heat where he felt it might have the most effect, Craig directly challenged Defenders of Wildlife’s Hank Fisher, as well as other Montana conservationists, to come to Washington to find problems with his proposed legislation.

Asked after the event for a response, Fisher said conservationists have “some responsibility to find where we can harvest timber with minimal impact. ... The Flathead Forest will [be one of the forests to] take the lead.”

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