This summer's raging wildfires are throwing off political heat as well, with some Westerners blaming the mammoth blazes on reductions in timber harvesting under the Clinton administration. The not-so-subtle message is that a policy tilted too far toward environmentalists left the West vulnerable to disaster. But before this year's devastating fires are used as a wedge to ratchet up commercial logging on public lands, a few points need to be remembered.
Nearly 40 million acres in the West are judged to be at risk of catastrophic fire. The biggest culprit in creating these conditions is a decades-old policy of putting out fires on public lands. Only in recent years has it been recognized that this policy upset a natural system of fairly frequent small fires that cleared out underbrush and small trees without undue damage to bigger ones. Squelching those natural fires allowed an explosive buildup of small trees and underbrush; those conditions combined with this year's extreme weather to set off the chain of fires that so far has consumed roughly 4 million acres of forest and rangeland.
Reducing the catastrophic fire risk over all the affected areas is an overwhelming task. The Forest Service proposes to focus efforts on the areas known as "urban-wildland interface," where cities or suburbs are adjacent to wildland areas or where people and houses are scattered through wildland areas. The agency wants to thin overgrown vegetation and use deliberately set fires the "prescribed burns" that became infamous this summer when one roared out of control near Los Alamos to bring forests back to a healthier level of density.
"Thinning" sounds a lot like logging, but there is an important difference. Most of the material that should be removed for fire prevention is too small to be useful in commercial logging. In many cases the agency simply has to pay contractors to cut down the smaller trees and brush and haul them out. Doing this on a scale big enough to succeed would be expensive.
There may be a role for standard commercial timber harvesting in some areas, but as the General Accounting Office pointed out in a report last year, lands with commercially valuable timber are often not those with the greatest wildfire dangers. Forest Service officials say that removing the bigger trees valuable for lumber can increase fire danger by taking away the canopy that shades the forest floor and leaving behind piles of brush and debris that can help feed a blaze.
Congress and the administration will have to consider, in light of this summer's experience, whether more needs to be done faster and how that effort will be funded. Emergency funds for reducing fire hazards are pending before Congress, and the White House has asked the secretaries of interior and agriculture for a report in September on steps to cut risk and ensure sufficient firefighting resources in the future. Everyone acknowledges that the fire-squelching philosophy of past decades has worsened the problem. But the debate on next steps ought to proceed coolly, with a careful eye to addressing the most urgent needs, not with a view to settling old scores between environmentalists and the timber industry.
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