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Burning Bush

Republican wildfire plan is the same old song and dance



Bush’s secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture just told the Western Governor’s Association about their 10-year plan to protect us from wildfires. The idea that government should act to protect its citizens is fundamental, and one that we should find comforting. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration’s plans to protect us are dubious at best—and anything but comforting.

After last year’s wildfires captured national attention, the Republican-dominated Congress responded just like always—first they blamed Clinton, then they threw money at “the problem.” In this case, they say the failure to properly manage our national forests over the last century by containing and putting out fires as quickly as possible has built up a huge, threatening inventory of fuels. However, they claim this situation can be remedied by getting rid of these fuels.

Using the billions already appropriated by the last Congress, Bush plans to save the West from wildfires by removing enough trees and underbrush to return the forests to what they call a “natural condition” that mimics what the forest would look like if nature had been allowed to act as it has for eons: burning away the underbrush and taking out enough large trees to reduce crowding. Removing so-called “ladder fuels” will supposedly keep ground fires from reaching the branches of larger trees, while “thinning” the large trees will prevent fires from leaping tree-to-tree.

Critics, however, say the Bush plan is just another way to reverse the Clinton Administration’s policies and continue logging the national forests. While cutting down the trees and hauling them off to the mill is one sure way to keep them from burning, it seems a little like the Vietnam War logic of “destroying villages to save them.” The end result is that the villages were wiped off the map, but at least they didn’t fall into the hands of the dreaded commies. Under the fuels reduction plan, however, we’re not talking about the occasional isolated village—we’re talking about billions of board feet of timber and millions of acres of national forests.

The plan to “save” our forests also requires some “management” roads in those pesky roadless areas Clinton was trying to protect. Won’t further road-building fragment what’s left of the remaining wildlife habitat? Won’t further road-building also increase the erosion and sedimentation that are hammering our dwindling native fish and water quality? And won’t it give rogue ATV riders even more access to create thousands of miles of illegal trails and spread noxious weeds throughout our national forests? To all these questions, the answer is undeniably “yes.” These are all ancillary damages that will result from the Republican plan to restore what they call “forest health.” What remains unknown, however, is whether or not it will work. And on this point, the debate rages.

Looking at last year’s fires, some of the hottest and most destructive ones burned not in virgin forests clogged with trees and brush, but through both private and public lands that had already been logged and developed. If the fuels reduction theory worked, these areas should have seen nothing more than ground fires because so few trees were left. But that’s not what happened. The same goes for roads. If more roads allowed better “management,” the fires should have mostly burned in the unroaded wilderness areas. But again, that’s not what happened. In fact, the fires burning in some of the wilderness areas remained small, while the fires racing through many of the heavily-roaded areas were enormous. Many of these heavily-roaded areas are in what is being called the “urban-wildland interface,” which is just a fancy name for the developments reaching toward the mountains from our valley floors.

Defenders of the fuel reduction theory point out that drought was a contributing factor in the severity of last year’s fires. Thanks to the high temperatures and lack of rain, they say all the fuels were tinder dry and no management regimen would have stopped the fires. Given a normal temperature and water year, however, they contend the fuels reduction plan will help prevent such large, destructive fires in the future. Which brings us right back to the Bush policies—and their effect on global warming.

The vast majority of the world’s scientists now accept the reality that man’s activities are affecting global climate. Many of the hottest years on record have occurred in the last decade and, if the scientists are right, many more will occur in the decades to come. The enormous quantity of carbon dioxide and other pollutants spewed into the atmosphere is widely held to be responsible for this warming trend. But the speed with which vast areas of the globe have been deforested is also credited with contributing to the problem. Forests, as we are finding out, are not just good for producing lumber—they also act as pollution filters for our atmosphere. To do so, however, the trees have to be alive. Two-by-fours just won’t work.

The Bush-Cheney energy plan will undoubtedly result in significantly more pollution of the atmosphere from increased burning of fossil fuels. Likewise, the Bush “fuels reduction and forest health” plan will undoubtedly cut down more trees. The combination can’t do anything but exacerbate global warming, which means higher temperatures and more drought—which means more uncontrollable fires.

Maybe President Bush and his political appointees can explain how the combination of their new energy and forest plans will result in a healthier world—but my hunch is, they can’t. True to his roots, Bush is doing whatever he can to help his corporate cronies plunder what’s left of the nation’s resources. And this time around, he’s simply using last year’s drought-fanned fires as a handy excuse for more good old-fashioned deforestation—no matter what he calls it. There is little doubt that forest homeowners can make their surroundings more fire resistant. But when it comes to fire-proofing our national forests by logging, the Bush plan is likely to do vastly more harm than good.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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