Western forests, burned by lawsuits

News Observer


SYLVA - The intense fires in the West have many environmental groups running for cover. Their campaign to lock up our national forests by essentially shutting down any active management by the U.S. Forest Service is now bearing fruit. The results are quite clear in the smoke rising from the Arizona woods.

The fire season has just begun, but by late June the Forest Service had reported 42,205 fires that burned 2.5 million acres. The Government Accounting Office reports that more than 65 million acres of national forest are at high risk to catastrophic wildfire or insect and disease infestation. A staggering one out of every three acres is already dead or dying.

Arizona Governor Jane Hull perhaps says it best: "The policies that are coming from the East Coast, that are coming from environmentalists, that say we don't need to log, we don't need to thin our forests are absolutely ridiculous. Nobody on the East Coast knows how to manage these fires and I for one have had it."

And so has a growing majority of the public. As a professional forester, I say it's about time!

In 2000, the federal government spent $1 billion fighting wildfires, and an additional $142 million will be spent to rehabilitate and restore the lands burned. Had thinning and timber sales planned for some Western forests gone forward, the wildfires would not have been as severe and revenues from these projects would have been distributed to local counties and school districts.

Predictably, the environmentalists' collective response has been, "It's not our fault...it's because of logging."

Last year, Forest Service Deputy Chief for Research, Dr. Robert Lewis addressed timber harvesting and its impact on fires before the House Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health:

"In the early part of the last century when more logging slash was left than is left today, this (increased fire risk) was true," stated Lewis. "Modern harvesting operations, based on scientifically sound silvicultural prescriptions, use material more efficiently and follow up rapidly with burning or mechanical reduction of residues. The risk of fire is minimal. Thinning trees in conjunction with subsequent prescribed burning is an effective strategy for reducing fire risk."

Why is it that none of these catastrophic fires have occurred on private forest lands managed for timber production? Clearly, active forest management reduces the risk of catastrophic fires because the forest stays healthy, flammable fuels are controlled and reduced, timber is harvested and the site quickly reforested.

Years of a flawed fire suppression strategy and passive management have made our federal forests susceptible to high-intensity fires, threatening the lives of the public and firefighters, private and public property and natural resources. These fires know no boundaries, destroying homes in their path and wasting our only renewable natural resource.

The Forest Service's ability to implement management tools in a timely manner is limited by conflicting environmental laws and mandates that are manipulated by environmental groups. They wield their power in courts with a legal strategy to tie up projects in endless appeals and lawsuits. Unclear goals and the threat of lawsuits leave professional land managers with few options.

The environmental legal machine files more than 500 appeals and lawsuits annually against the Forest Service. Environmental studies and documentation required on every activity on federal lands costs U.S. taxpayers between $179 million and $329 million annually. The resulting delays exact an incalculable human and environmental toll.

It doesn't have to be this way. We cannot and should not try to eliminate fire. But we can significantly reduce catastrophic wildfire. Active forest management involving the judicious use of fire to reduce fuels, timber harvesting and other tools can greatly reduce the severity of fires and the destruction from insects and disease.

We have to get the courts out of forest management and the Forest Service needs clear goals and direction, along with adequate funding from Congress. We have to turn the management of our forests back to professionals and not let environmental obstructionists block common sense.

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