GETTING BURNED BY LOGGING:
Logging Industry Misrepresents Environmentalists' Role in Forest Fires
Logging advocates conveniently propose to remedy this mismanagement with a massive commercial "thinning" program across tens of millions of acres of federal lands, ostensibly to protect both forests and nearby homes from severe forest fires.
As with all good deceptions, this one contains some grains of truth.
Most experts now agree, for example, that in some areas excessively high levels of undergrowth can cause unnaturally severe fires, and that reducing these hazardous fuels is warranted.
Environmentalists agree. In fact, a recent General Accounting Office (GAO) report found that only 1% of Forest Service hazardous fuel reduction projects were challenged with appeals and none had been litigated.
Unfortunately, there are number of massive logging proposals, disguised as hazardous fuels treatments, that have put environmentalists at odds with the Forest Service. Nearly all of these proposals focus primarily on the removal of mature and old-growth trees. These proposals continue even with overwhelming evidence that commercial logging is more of a problem than a solution. There's simply a cognitive disconnect between the Forest Service's scientists and its timber sale planners, whose budgets are dependent upon selling valuable mature trees.
Ironically, this very type of logging, experts inform us, is likely to increase, not decrease, the frequency and severity of wildland fires.
In the Forest Service's own National Fire Plan, agency scientists warned against the use of commercial logging to address fire management. The report found that "the removal of large, merchantable trees from forests does not reduce fire risk and may, in fact, increase such risk."
Commercial thinning operations leave behind dry twigs and limbs, cause rapid growth of flammable shrubs and weeds, and reduce forest canopy closure, creating hotter, drier conditions on the ground.
Likewise, the Forest Service's proposals to do intensive logging deep into the forest -- far from any home -- is likely to put homes at greater risk of burning.
What environmentalists are hoping to do is bring some common sense back to fuel reduction treatments by redirecting the Forest Service's energies and resources to where the treatments will do the most good: immediately adjacent to homes and within communities in the wildland-urban interface.
The Forest Service's expert on this issue, Jack Cohen, reports that logging on national forest lands isn't the answer. Cohen's research reveals that the only way to protect homes effectively is to reduce the flammability of the homes themselves and their immediate surroundings within 200 feet.
So when commercial logging to reduce fuels is proposed miles from communities, environmentalist object, reflecting the failure of the Forest Service to listen. The Forest Service's own science does not support these types of treatments, so the system of legal checks and balances recognizes what cannot be considered legitimate. The system isn't broke; in fact, it works best when the most dubious fuel reduction logging schemes are stopped by environmental laws meant to protect this kind of abuse, just as Congress envisioned.
The fact is that Western forests burn. In most cases, larger wildfires can't be stopped by human intervention, even where areas have been treated, because the primary factors that drive a fire are lack of moisture, heat, wind and weather. However, fire researchers have shown us that we can protect our homes and communities by establishing "defensible space."
Fire is an essential, natural and necessary part of Western forest ecology. Many species of trees can only reproduce after fires occur. Wildland fires burn underbrush and return important nutrients to the soil.
In the end, we as a society must decide whom we trust more to implement fire management on our national forest system: logging advocates or scientists.
We can end commercial logging on our national forests and shift to true, science-based ecological restoration, as HR1494, the National Forest Protection and Restoration Act, would do.
Or, we can continue to allow misguided logging advocates to destroy ecosystems and increase severe fires on federal lands -- all at taxpayer expense.
The choice is ours.
René Voss is Public Policy Director of the John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute. He may be contacted at (202) 255-3351, firstname.lastname@example.org, or PO Box 11246, Takoma Park, MD 20913.
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This story was published on July 3, 2002.