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   Bush Forestry Policies Encourage Wildfires


Bush Forestry Policies Encourage Wildfires

by Chad Hanson
As wildfires sweep across America’s grasslands and forests, Bush administration officials have tried to take political advantage by proposing to gut environmental regulations to allow increased logging on national forests. This, they opine, will prevent “analysis paralysis” and will allow more “thinning” of flammable undergrowth.

The reality, though, is that environmental groups do not challenge Forest Service projects that merely seek to reduce flammable undergrowth.

In fact, conservationists have been steadfastly urging the Forest Service to conduct more of these projects. But the Forest Service generally refuses because there’s no money to be made from shrubs, saplings and weeds.

Despite the Bush administration’s disingenuous rhetoric about “thinning underbrush,” the Forest Service really focuses the vast majority of its projects on the removal of economically valuable mature and old-growth trees. The sale of such timber pads the agency’s budget, creating a bureaucratic incentive for mismanagement.

The problem with this is that while the removal of mature trees severely degrades wildlife habitat, such logging also increases the risk of severe fires by reducing the forest canopy, creating hotter, drier conditions on the ground. Also, the increased sunlight reaching the forest floor causes more rapid growth of flammable brush and shrubs.

Essentially, the Forest Service is removing the largest, most fire-resistant structural elements of the forest—the large trees with their thick bark—and leaving behind the smallest, most flammable material.

A century of intense logging in National Forests has not prevented severe fire conditions—it has created them.

And, instead of focusing projects adjacent to homes, the agency prefers to propose large logging projects in remote areas where the biggest, most valuable trees are. The result is that homes are being ignored while the Bush administration spends millions of dollars of taxpayer money preparing projects that make logging companies rich, but only worsen fire behavior.

The Bitterroot post-fire logging project on the Bitterroot National Forest, in Montana, is a perfect example of the problem. On a recent site visit, it was discovered that the Forest Service was almost exclusively targeting the removal of large old-growth trees and leaving behind small fire-killed trees and flammable slash debris.

A similar situation exists on the Gap fire salvage logging project in the Tahoe National Forest, in the Sierra Nevada, where the Forest Service proposes to sell all of the large burned trees to logging companies, but leave most of the smallest, most flammable material.

The environmental assessment for this project requests that logging companies remove some of the small, “nonmerchantable” material if they feel like it, and only “to the extent that the economics of the salvage [logging] operation are not threatened.”

What’s more, the Forest Service’s own scientific study recommends leaving large dead trees in the forest after a fire to prevent a future severe burn. Large logs soak up and store huge amounts of water and become increasingly moist as they decay.

The study, authored by Mike Amaranthus in 1989, noted that “when forest managers are analyzing for fire risk, they should take into account the high water content of fallen logs during the period in which wildfire potential is greatest.”

The Amaranthus report concludes that fallen trees provide “a significant source of moisture in the event of prolonged drought or wildfire.” Another Forest Service report (McIver and Starr, 2000) “found no studies documenting a reduction in the fire intensity in a stand that had previously burned and then been logged.”

The Bush administration’s refusal to focus projects on reducing flammable brush near homes, and its insistence on creating more severe fire conditions by allowing logging companies to remove large trees on federal lands, raises a disturbing question.

Does the administration care more about pleasing logging-industry campaign contributors than protecting homes from fire?

One thing is certain. No changes are needed in environmental laws to allow more brush-reduction projects near homes. The only ones that don’t want to focus funds on such projects are big logging companies and the politicians whose campaigns they fund.

It’s not a matter of law, it’s a matter of political will or lack thereof. And that’s the biggest tragedy of all.

Chad Hanson is the executive director of the John Muir Project and a national director of the Sierra Club. He lives near the Tahoe National Forest in the Sierra Nevada. He can be reached at 530-273-9290, or PO Box 697, Cedar Ridge, CA 95924.

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This story was published on September 4, 2002.
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