Nature vs. Politics
By Dr. Patrick Moore
Greenpeace has just issued a report claiming that it is better to let our forests burn to the ground than to adopt programs that will reduce catastrophic wildfire. As an ecologist, I can tell you that this approach ultimately leads to soil destruction, air and water pollution, and wildfires that can kill every living thing in our forests -- all in the name of "saving the forests."
Having dedicated my life to the environment, I am always concerned when the forces of nature meet face-to-face with the forces of politics. This is especially true when the forces of nature are coming in loud and clear: Approximately 90 million acres of our nation's public forests are at risk of catastrophic wildfire right now. Every year we see millions of acres of forest burn when this could be prevented.
At the Western Governors' Association summit this week in Missoula, Montana, the topic will be forest health. Earlier this month, the House passed a bill that would hopefully improve forest officials' ability to properly manage the forests. The Senate is scheduled to begin hearings on this bill next week.
We live in an era when many activists believe we should leave our forests alone -- an ecologically dangerous policy that sets our forests up to be destroyed not just by fire, but by insects and disease. It is especially bewildering when you consider how simple it is, through the application of time-tested forest management practices, to maintain forests in a state that reduces the chance of such outcomes.
The root of the problem is that when we protect our forests from wildfires, over time they become susceptible to disease and to catastrophic wildfires as fuel loads build up. The only way to prevent this is to actively remove dead trees and to thin the forest. The active management of these forests is necessary to protect human life and property, along with air, water and wildlife. This does not prevent us from also maintaining a world-class system of parks and wilderness areas where industrial activity is restricted or banned.
Many activists have a mindset that is simply opposed to forestry. These groups favor policies that involve reducing the use of wood instead of encouraging its use as a renewable resource. We have been led to believe that when we use wood we are causing a bit of forest to be lost. This is not the case. When we buy wood we send a signal into the marketplace to plant more trees, and produce more wood. One of the main reasons there is still about the same area of forested land in the U.S. today as there was 100 years ago is because we use so much wood. Agriculture and urbanization cause forest loss, not forestry.
The inferno that began in the Bandelier National Monument near Los Alamos, N.M. in May 2000 is a classic case in point. The park officials who started this fire did so with good intentions. But they failed to take into account that more than 50 years of fire prevention had resulted in a fuel load build-up that nearly guaranteed what ensued: hundreds of homes destroyed and thousands of acres of forest lost.
The only solution in these circumstances is removal of wood to reduce the fuel load. In some types of forests, it may be possible to manage fuel loads with prescribed fire. In other forest types, especially where there are homes and other property at risk, mechanical thinning and harvesting are the best options.
It is unfortunate that some organizations characterize the need to implement active management of national forests as damaging to the environment. It is actually the only way to break the present environmentally destructive pattern of fuel build-up that often results in catastrophic outcomes. I hope that those responsible for our forests will bring about the very necessary changes in law and practice -- and return the forces of nature to a more desirable state.
Dr. Moore is co-founder and former president of Greenpeace.
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