LOS ANGELES, Aug. 19 (UPI) -- With President Bush expected this week to call for a scaling back of overgrown forests that have turned into fire hazards, the Wilderness Society said Monday that the environmental movement should not be blamed for wildfires that have burned through nearly 6 million acres this year.
The organization issued a statement denying charges from some western lawmakers that environmentalists have used legal challenges to derail efforts to clear out forest areas thick with tinder-dry brush and small trees and, instead, argued that the U.S. Forest Service was too focused on the commercial aspects of the task.
"Severe drought has caused an above average number of forest fires," the Wilderness Society said. "As the blame game continues, the U.S. Forest Service clearly must improve its performance if it is to achieve the goal of the National Fire Plan -- prioritizing our limited resources to protect lives and homes."
Forest areas that have grown thick with brush and saplings have become a major area of concern for firefighters who view the underbrush as a "ladder fuel" that allow flames to leap into the vulnerable tops of older, larger trees and trigger the devastating canopy fires that are extremely difficult to contain and can kill entire stands of timber.
The National Fire Plan endorses the notion of clearing out areas that have become overgrown so that fires, which are a natural component of the ecology of western mountain forests, do not pose such a dire threat. The president, who is scheduled to speak on the subject of wildfires Thursday in rural Oregon, is expected to call for an acceleration of fuels reduction efforts in the West.
Western senators and governors have made their presence known at appearances just behind the fire lines in Oregon, Arizona and Colorado. Those visits have often included demands that the Forest Service begin "treating" more acres to remove the fire threat, and sometimes there have been calls for changes in environmental regulations to make more it difficult to block a fuel-thinning project.
It is not known if Bush will announce any such regulatory changes, but the Wilderness Society repeated earlier statements from environmental groups that most treatment projects sail through the approval process unchallenged while those that were challenged were not necessarily contested by the green community.
Citing a General Accounting Office report on fuel reduction in 2001, the Wilderness Society found that only 1 percent of 1,671 proposed projects were "appealed by any interested party, including recreation groups, conservationists, industry interests or individuals."
The same report, the group said, was critical of the Forest Service for tending to focus its fuels-reduction plans in areas where commercially valuable timber was located rather than on areas that had the highest fire hazards.
The Forest Service, however, contends that it needs to include some larger trees in their treatment plans as financial incentive to attract private companies to perform the labor-intensive work since there is little, if any, commercial value in saplings and dead brush.
The Los Angeles Times said Monday that in California, the lion's share of funding for treatment projects was spent in the remote Plumas and Lassen National Forests of Northern California while the Angeles National Forest outside Los Angeles was at the bottom of the funding list even though it is near many more homes and other structures that could be threatened by wildfire.
Forestry officials said Northern California received the primary focus due to its residents; environmentalists and loggers were all in agreement that the forest floor needed a good cleaning and basically agreed to support treatment projects that did not involve old-growth timber stands.
In Southern California, officials told the Times, the situation was more complicated because of funding limits and objections to large amounts of smoke and traffic from heavy logging equipment.
"Some of it is money and not having the funding to do a large number of acres," said Don Feser, forest fire chief for the Angeles. "But more restrictive is just the few days that we can burn."
Bush will be speaking Thursday in a state that has had to bear much of the brunt of the 2002 fire season. More than 895,000 acres in Oregon have been scorched by wildfire this year, second only to the more than 2 million acres in remote areas of Alaska where fires are often allowed to burn themselves out.
The largest active fire in the nation is in southwest Oregon. The Biscuit Fire that began July 13 was up to nearly 449,000 acres Monday and 40-percent contained.
Fires were burning in a total of 11 states, and the National Weather Service had fire weather watches and warnings posted late Monday in Nevada, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and South Dakota.