Logging without limits isn't a solution to wildfires
I n the midst of one of the most severe wildfire seasons in decades, some lawmakers are opportunistically using the blazes to further a longstanding agenda to allow unfettered commercial logging in the national forests.
Several bills before Congress would suspend all environmental protection laws for the sake of "fire prevention logging," effectively stripping citizens of their legal rights to be informed participants in forest management, and to hold government agencies accountable when they break the law.
To justify these Draconian measures, members of Congress have seized upon the accusations of some Forest Service officials that environmentalists have obstructed fire hazard reduction projects with frivolous appeals and lawsuits. Accordingly, some politicians have even gone so far as to blame environmentalists for the current wildfires!
Most embarrassing to the accusers of "environmentalist obstructionism" is the fact that the General Accounting Office, the non-partisan research wing of Congress, found that only 20 out of 1,640 fire-hazard reduction projects planned over the last two years had been appealed, and none had been taken to court. In response, the Forest Service claimed to have its own list of 326 projects, of which 154 had been stopped by appeals or lawsuits. But, when Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., and Mark Udall, D-Colo., asked to see this list of appealed/litigated projects, the agency was forced to admit that no such list existed.
This begs the question: Is Congress now reacting to a problem fabricated by the Forest Service?
If and when a comprehensive list of fire hazard projects is ever produced, the end result will most likely be the discovery that environmentalists have challenged only those projects that involve commercial logging of large-diameter trees in remote backcountry areas -- that they have not opposed projects that involve noncommercial cutting and prescribed burning of small-diameter understory trees and brush in areas adjacent to communities. The distinction is critical to addressing both the source of the wildfire crisis and its solution.
Since the "New Perspectives" program of the early 1990s, the agency has tried to dodge public opposition to commercial logging by using various euphemisms, such as this gem from the Siskiyou National Forest: Clearcuts are called "minimum green tree retention units." Accordingly, Forest Service managers have believed that if they simply refer to logging as "thinning," or add the phrases "fuels reduction" or "forest restoration" to the title of their timber sale plans, then the public will accept these projects at face value, and business-as-usual commercial logging can proceed. In the face of multiple scandals and widespread public skepticism of the Forest Service's credibility, it seems that only Congress is buying the agency's labeling scheme.
There does appear to be growing consensus among forest managers, fire scientists -- and environmentalists, too -- on the need for some kind of carefully targeted tree thinning as one tool for reducing wildfire hazards. But the consensus centers on the need to thin the "thin stuff" -- brush and understory trees -- not the "thick stuff" --large-diameter mature and old-growth trees. However, logging corporations desire to take only large-diameter trees because these are the ones most profitable to them; they have no interest in cutting small-diameter trees and underbrush.
We need to use fire science to determine what kind of thinning will most effectively protect communities and restore ecosystems. We should employ social values to decide what kind of thinning constitutes cutting as opposed to logging.
The Forest Service would not generate public opposition or run afoul of the law if it were to propose legitimate fire hazard reduction projects that target small-diameter surface fuels in areas adjacent to communities.
And Congress does not have to suspend environmental laws in order to provide adequate funding -- using just a fraction of the $1 billion it will spend on this year's firefighting costs -- to accomplish these kinds of projects.
Congress and the Forest Service should put the need for community fire protection ahead of commodity timber production and design fire hazard reduction projects that are scientifically sound, socially acceptable and offer real solutions to real problems. By proposing logging without limits or laws, Congress is heading full steam on the wrong track, and is going to ignite a firestorm of public controversy and social conflict that will only worsen the wildfire crisis. Timothy Ingalsbee is the director of the Western Fire Ecology Center for the American Lands Alliance in Eugene. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org