Feeling burned: Study cuts down the Healthy Forests Restoration Act


Remember back when Karl Rove and the clever wordsmiths of the Bush administration came out with the Clear Skies Initiative and the Healthy Forests Restoration Act? Many argued that these policies did exactly the opposite of what their titles suggested, leading to dirtier air and more logging in national forests. Now, a long eight years later, it is hardly a surprise that a new study finds Healthy Forests has indeed failed to achieve its promised results.

No administration in recent memory has used fear as effectively as did the Bush-Cheney cabal—and Healthy Forests was no exception. With some 20 million acres of dead pines in Canada, predictions that Colorado and Wyoming would have no lodge pole forests in five years and enormous swathes of Montana now covered with red or dead trees, it wasn’t hard for Bush and his pals in the logging industry to raise the specter of massive, catastrophic wildfires. Their solution was to fast-track new logging on federal forests under the rubric of “fuels reduction.”

If only we allowed the “forest professionals” to manage the land, we were told, they would undo a century’s worth of mismanagement by, ironically, the forest professionals who had preceded them. It was those mistakes, we were assured, that led to the accumulation of fuels that would now create uncontrollable wildfires unless the logging industry was set free of pesky environmental constraints and the threat of lawsuits by concerned citizens. Those who criticized the new policy for its shortcuts and shortcomings, were dubbed obstructionists, at best, and painted as endangering their fellow citizens and communities at worst.

But now a new study, headed by University of Colorado fire ecologist Tania Schoennagel and published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, takes a hard look at the efficacy of 44,613 “fuel reduction” projects undertaken in Western states since Bush, with backing from timid Democrats, unleashed the chainsaws on what was left of the nation’s Western forests.

The conclusions of the study are not heartening. For one thing, only 3 percent of the fuel reduction projects were conducted in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), where the threat from wildfire damages to homes and businesses is greatest. Even if you expand the borders of the WUI out by another 1.5 miles into the forests, the total percentage of fuel reduction projects conducted to reduce fire risk in WUI areas comes to 11 percent. What that means is that nine out of 10 areas logged for fuel reduction were too far away from human inhabitants to have much, if any, effect on the wildfire threat to communities. 

That finding echoes contentions by critics that the Healthy Forests policies of the Bush administration were primarily enacted to grant favors to their cronies in the logging industry by allowing them to cut profitable old growth and green trees rather than significantly reducing the threat of wildfire to forest communities. 

It also means that the Democrats, who were complicit in going along with Bush’s phony forest health policies, were duped once again—just like they were on the Patriot Act and the Iraq War. In fact, as the study notes, only 17 percent of the forested lands that could threaten communities from wildfires are federal lands where the Healthy Forests policies would apply. By contrast, some 71 percent of the WUI forests are private lands whose owners, not the federal government, are responsible for fuel reduction efforts.

A much more effective approach to mitigating wildfire threats, the study suggests, would be to adopt fire-wise policies for private property and WUI homeowners. “Fire suppression is doing an outstanding job,” Schoennagel told reporters, “but there is only so much they can do. So we are probably going to continue to have more home losses unless we have communities more adapted to fire.” Those adaptations include using fireproof building material in WUI homes, metal roofs, and clearing brush, trees and woodpiles from around homes.

What the study didn’t say—but what other studies have repeatedly found—is that large wildfires are increasingly a result of global warming. As most folks know, the Bush administration and many of its Republican supporters steadfastly refused to even acknowledge global warming, much less address its causes. That many of these head-in-the-sand policymakers are still in Congress does not bode well for taking the necessary steps to address the larger problem instead of the failing, piecemeal approach of mitigating individual wildfire impacts. 

Montana is a prime example in this regard. We know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that our summers are hotter and drier and our winters shorter and warmer than in times past. We know also know the results. Without a couple weeks of 20 or 30 below zero temperatures of a typical Montana winter, insects such as the pine bark beetle do not die off. Instead, they live through the winter, reproduce early, and kill thousands of more acres of trees by boring through the life-carrying cambium just beneath the bark. 

We also know that the increase in overall temperatures has contributed to drought conditions across the state. Drought-weakened trees are already more susceptible to insects and disease, but without sufficient soil moisture, our forests have little chance to survive by “pitching out” the pine beetles with sap.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester recently touted his efforts to get loggers “back in the woods” and used much of the same “healthy forests” rhetoric employed by the Bush administration. But as the new study suggests, the Bush methods are simply not working if protecting forest communities from wildfire is the goal. Moreover, they do nothing about global warming. If Tester is serious about a real solution, he would do well to consider the study’s recommendations, take into account the currently non-existent market for lumber and concentrate his efforts—and scarce federal stimulus dollars—on the private lands that make up the vast majority of the wildland-urban interface.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at


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