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raredance BS: We save the owls and lose the forests (61* d) RE: BS: We save the owls and lose the forests 30 Jun 02


lNew York Times/ Op-Ed June 30, 2002

Scorched-Earth Politics third dry summer in a row has brought another wave of forest fires to the American West. With two million acres already gone and summer just begun, it would seem logical for everyone to set differences aside and pursue the sound firefighting strategy devised by the Clinton administration and ratified by President Bush last year. Yet as Pat Williams, a former Montana congressman, observed, "The only thing that burns hotter than a wildfire in the West is the demagoguery of some politicians trying to take advantage of it."

This demagoguery comes largely from the right, which is always looking for ways to make environmentalists look bad. The leaders of the pack this year are Jane Dee Hull and Judy Martz, the governors of Arizona and Montana.Their mantra, minus the subteties, is this: Log the trees, and they won't burn. The man generally blamed for the present crisis is Bill Clinton. To his critics, he is a political naf who was suckered by radical "ecosystem management" notions that reduced the commercial timber harvest and left the woods vulnerable to fire.

That is, of course, a preposterous reading of nature and history, not to mention of Mr. Clinton. Ecosystem management managing the forests to protect watersheds and the wildlife and humans who depend on them, rather than commercial interests alone took root in the first Bush administration. That is also when logging began to decline, largely as a result of Judge William Dwyer's landmark decision to protect huge swaths of spotted owl habitat in the Pacific Northwest from clear-cutting. The notion that environmental lawsuits have hindered fire-prevention projects is equally absurd. According to a federal study last summer, fewer than 1 percent of 1,671 fire-prevention projects had been appealed. A greater obstacle to fire prevention may have been the governors themselves, some of whom have resisted the Forest Service's proven strategy of preventing larger fires with smaller, controlled burns.

Fortunately, reasonable people on both sides, including cooler heads in the current Bush administration, agree on what the problem is and how to approach it. The basic cause of the problem is a now-discredited Forest Service strategy of suppressing all fires as quickly as possible. The policy took hold after the aptly named Big Burn in Idaho and Montana in 1910 and by 1947 had a popular mascot, Smokey Bear. By disrupting the natural cycle of fires, however, this strategy left the forests choked with dry fuel small trees and bushes that turned modest fires into roaring infernos. Excessive logging had the same effect because it removed the biggest and most fire-resistant trees and left behind a tinderbox of "slash" and young trees.

The Smokey line of thinking gradually fell from favor. In 2000, in the midst of roaring fires that eventually consumed 8.4 million acres, the Clinton administration and six Western governors agreed on a fresh approach. It consisted essentially of controlled burns plus an aggressive program to thin the underbrush, especially in vulnerable areas known as the "wildland/urban interface," where an increasing number of people have built homes near the forests.

Congress liked the plan and opened its pocketbook: $1.7 billion in new money in 2001 and $1.2 billion for the present fiscal year. Some legislators have complained that the money is not flowing fast enough to underwrite the local thinning programs at the heart of the strategy. The administration has pledged to step things up. Others want the administration to require local communities to change their building codes as a condition of future government help. In Colorado, despite a statewide campaign to get everyone to take precautionary steps, only 33 of the state's 64 counties have voluntarily developed fire plans, which in most cases require the use of fire-retardant building materials.

Meanwhile, a truce is required in the ideological wars. The environmentalists must not erect unreasonable legal barriers to fire-suppression projects adjacent to populated areas. For its part, the administration must not use "thinning" as a cover for commercial logging or as an excuse to invade remote roadless areas of the national forests, which are not particularly prone to fires anyway. This is no time for partisan sniping.

rich r




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