Forest Management Policy Needs to Change Forest management has always been a political battlefield that threatens the health of one of Americaís most important natural resources.
Forest management policy has always been a political battlefield that threatens the health of one of Americaís most important natural resources. Approximately one-third of the land in the United States is forestedó747 million acres. Of this, private individuals own 54 percent; timber companies own 9 percent, and the government (federal, state, or local) owns 37 percent. Public land management policies have always been controversial, as the government is required to balance various uses of the land, from recreation to industrial uses such as logging and mining. And it must be remembered that federal policies also have a significant impact on privately owned lands.
While much of the confusion could be addressed through private ownership, it is unlikely that the government will abandon its role as the largest landlord anytime soon. Consequently, the administrationís Healthy Forests plan is an important effort to replace political consensus with science-based policies. Historically, federal land management has a less than sterling record, and without a new approach the interest group politics that have thwarted active land management in the past will continue to threaten the nationís forests. Beyond the large bureaucracy that has emerged out of the public land management system, the courts also have become an active participant in gridlock, as mandates and court rulings have allowed environmental interest groups and others to stifle any attempts at reform.
The annual wildfire season is a stark reminder of the dangers of a do-nothing forest management policy. Last summer over 6 million acres across America burned, and more than 190 million acres of federally managed land are at risk due to wildfires. The dangers of wildfires have increased significantly over time, due, in large part, to ill-informed land management practices of the past. Huge fires early in Americaís national park system led to a public outcry and a call to battle all wildfires. In many ways, todayís forests have become a victim of the success of past policies.
Fire has always been a part of the natural cycle of a forest, thinning vegetation and dead trees. Wildfire suppression eliminated this integral element of forest life, and todayís forests are much denser, with higher fuel loads that make fires more severe when they do break out. Insect infestation and disease have also become real threats, with the 33 million acres of federal forests at risk.
Despite the declining health of our nationís forests and billions of dollars lost to wildfires, many environmentalists and others staunchly oppose any changes to the bureaucratic gridlock that controls forest policy. They claim that any changes should target only the urban-wilderness interface, where communities are built in areas prone to fire. But such an approach is incomplete at best, and does little to address the serious threats to our nationís forests. A century of fire suppression has altered Americaís forests in ways that make them burn hotter and more quickly than they did in earlier times. As a result, much of the soil can be sterilized, which can limit the forestís rejuvenation after the fire.
The administrationís Healthy Forests initiative takes a much more active approach to forest management, based on principles supported by science and forestry. The plan includes a role for timber harvesting and prescribed burns that can improve the sustainability of the nationís forests. In addition, the plan would eliminate the bureaucratic and administrative maneuvering that has paralyzed forest management in the United States. Opponents to change have relied on these measures to thwart earlier reform efforts, launching legal challenges that can tie up any change for years.
Years of ill-conceived forestry practices have created a tinderbox that threatens to squander an important natural resource. A hands-off approach to forest management ensures a future of intense wildfire seasons and diminishing forest health. The presidentís plan offers an alternative to gridlock that would foster the health of Americaís forests and promote a more effective and sustainable approach to managing this valuable resource.
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