Trees are made of wood. Wood burns. Cut down the trees and they won’t burn.
That, say local environmentalists, is about as sophisticated as the Bush administration got when it unveiled its “Healthy Forests Initiative” last week in Oregon.
The environmental response to increasingly devastating forest fire seasons is also fairly simple: Remove the fire-prone species that have come to dominate the forest landscape in the wake of 75 years of aggressive fire fighting, and leave the big, thick-barked, fire-resistant ponderosa pines.
Misguided and cynical political posturing, campaign contribution paybacks and free market solutions are driving the Bush administration’s national forest policy, says enviros, rather than any concern for the health of national forests or adjacent communities.
But as always, the devil is in the details. Local environmentalists say they are unclear on the fine points of the Bush forest plan, but suspect that the proposal will very likely favor the timber industry over environmental concerns.
The Bush proposal also appears to focus on the administrative process, rather than on the nuts-and-bolts methods of protecting communities in the wildland-urban interface from fire.
If the Bush administration is sincerely concerned about protecting those communities at risk of burning, environmentalists say, it should separate the issue of community protection from commercial logging, which are two different issues that the president seem to be merging into one. For evidence, one need look no further than the U.S. Forest Service, which has reams of scientific documents detailing the symbiotic relationship between fire and logging.
“Our solution,” says Native Forest Network’s Matthew Koehler, “is, we support a common sense approach to protecting communities and homes from fire, and restoring the integrity of America’s forests. How do we use the best available science to restore the ecological integrity of our national forests?”
Koehler says his organization has spent two years working with independent “restoration practitioners” to draft a set of principles to direct forest restoration work and to serve as a guide to set future policies and projects.
For example, the same bulldozer operators who built the more than 400,000 miles of roads on national forests can be retrained to remove those roads that the Forest Service says it can no longer afford to maintain and which are ecologically destructive. And home protection, Koehler says, depends not on logging but on the home’s location, building materials, condition and surroundings within a 100-foot radius, a theory that has been borne out by Forest Service studies.
The problem, though, is that Forest Service budgets are tied to fire fighting and resource extraction activities like logging, grazing, mining and oil and gas drilling, not restoration. As NFN notes, the Forest Service spends $1.2 billion a year on subsidies to “needlessly” log the national forests, which only produce less than 3 percent of all wood products. Imagine, Koehler asks, if the Forest Service budgets were tied to actual restoration work and community protection projects. “Why is it so unreasonable to suggest putting people to work restoring the forest?” Larry Campbell, executive director of Friends of the Bitterroot, calls the Forest Service a “perpetual motion budget machine” because it continues to fight forest fires, which the agency itself blames for the fire-prone condition of western forests. During most of the 20th century, the Forest Service practiced “indiscriminate fire suppression, and they have no intention but to continue more indiscriminate fire suppression,” says Campbell. “They’ve got more manpower and equipment, and they’re throwing more money and energy into that recurring problem than ever before. Now they want to spend billions more [on fire fighting]. What’s wrong with this picture? It makes sense if you follow the money.”
Jeff Juel of the Ecology Center accuses the Bush administration of using forest fires as a justification to lower environmental standards and increase logging on public lands. “The administration is very cynically using the whole wildfire issue,” Juel says, comparing the Bush proposal to the Enron scandal, in that public assets (as public lands rather than shareholder investments) are converted to private profit. “Our challenge is going to be to make the case to the people and Congress and show them the Forest Service’s own science.”
That science has shown repeatedly that decades of commercial logging have increased fire intensity. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (the parent agency of the Forest Service), released a report following the 2000 fire season which states, in part, that wildland fire policy “should not rely on commercial logging or new road building to reduce fire risks.” The report also states that, “The removal of large, merchantable trees from forests does not reduce fire risk and may, in fact, increase such risk.” Congressman Dennis Rehberg (R–Mont.) has thrown his support behind the Bush plan by introducing legislation—H.R. 5214—that would give the Secretary of Agriculture exclusive authority over national fire or bug infestation prevention projects. It would also preclude or limit the public’s ability to appeal or litigate Forest Service projects.
Koehler says the Rehberg bill is broader than the 1995 “salvage rider” which banned appeals and suspended environmental laws. That legislation, which the Washington Post called “arguably the worst piece of public lands legislation ever,” resulted in enough harvest to fill logging trucks lined up for more than 6,800 miles.
Whether Congress will line up behind Rehberg’s bill will likely depend on eastern representatives who seem less inclined than their western counterparts to gut environmental protections.
Regardless, these are grim times for environmentalists. Says Juel, “Every American citizen who values the national forests is under siege right now.”