LOS ANGELES, May 21 (UPI) -- The Forest Service is clearing out overgrown forestlands at a record pace to prevent devastating wildfires, while the issue heats up with the House's passage of President Bush's controversial Healthy Forests Initiative.
Nearly 3 million acres of federal lands is expected to be "treated" by the close of fiscal 2003 this summer, well above the record 2.25 million acres treated last year when the issue of fuels reduction came to a head with the president's call for regulatory changes that would make it easier to conduct treatment projects and more difficult for environmentalists and other members of the public to block them.
"Forest fire season is almost upon us," warned Michael V. Draper, vice president of the West Coast carpenters union. "We urge the Senate to pass this important legislation as quickly as possible upon its return from the Memorial Day recess."
The crux of the initiative is the thinning out of forests that have become overcrowded with brush and small-diameter trees that act as kindling and spread flames into the crowns of mature trees. The unkempt condition has received much of the blame for last year's fire season that nationwide saw some 7 million acres and more than 800 homes go up in smoke.
Wildfires likely won't threaten the homes of too many union carpenters this summer, however Draper is a member of the Forest Products Industry National Labor Management Committee, a non-profit group representing the interests of 2 million forest industry workers whose livelihoods depend a great deal on how much wood comes out of the nation's forests.
Economics has generally been a powerful force in the debate over fuel reduction and logging in federal forests where environmentalists are seen as either watchdogs against destructive wholesale cutting or obstructionists willing to risk the lives and homes of others in order to halt treatment projects on general environmental principles.
The green community denies it is trying to block needed forest treatment and says the Healthy Forest Initiative bill passed Tuesday by the House of Representatives is intrinsically flawed.
"We've been working hand in hand with the Forest Service against the clock to restore these forests and protect our communities from wildfires," Bill Hedden, executive director of Grand Canyon Trust, declared Wednesday. "We protest this dishonest bill that cuts the public out of forest management decisions and hides industrial logging of big trees behind a beauty screen of thinning projects."
Hedden predicted that the changes in the law would actually result in more treatment projects being contested; however, the Forest Service is continuing its program of cutting brush, saplings and dead vegetation.
The Forest Service maintains that "tens of millions of additional acres are in need of treatment" to protect against fire and improve the overall health of the forests. The Healthy Forest Initiative would open up more land to timber sales and remove a number of legal hoops to accelerate the treatments -- pleasing forest industries and rural residents who reside close proximity to fire-threatened areas.
Environmentalists, though, are convinced that the plan is aimed more at rewarding timber companies that contribute to Republican political campaigns than it is at actually getting rid of the low-value small trees and brush that pose the greatest fire risk.
"Even though the House has passed a logging bill that ignores homes and communities at risk, the Senate still has an opportunity to provide these protections," said Robert Vandermark of the National Environmental Trust. "Scarce federal funding should be directed around homes and communities where it is needed most, instead of giving a green light to timber companies to log our national forests."
Treatment is a labor-intensive process that seeks to restore overgrown forests to the state they were in 100 years ago. The job requires crews of loggers to hack away at the brush and small trees and then pile them up and either truck them out of the forest for disposal or burn them.
The heavy lifting costs $500-$1,000 per acre, so foresters often offset some of the costs by contracting with private companies that are allowed to harvest some commercially viable larger tress in exchange for completing the treatment.
The smaller trees that are responsible for spreading wildfires are largely worthless as a commodity. Along with being small in size, the younger wood is often warped or doesn't have the strength and density to make it acceptable for the housing construction in which Draper and other carpenters are involved.
Other uses -- such as pallets, wood chips and even biomass fuels -- have been suggested and small operations exist in some remote Western communities. And the Forest Service's Southwest sector is awarding grants totaling $1 million this year for the development of any kind of economical uses for small trees that will make more-selective forest treatments viable.
The Healthy Forests Initiative, however, was born in a crisis atmosphere and is based on allowing more logging on more acres in order to rapidly get a handle on what the White House and many Western lawmakers see as a highly dangerous fire hazard rather than waiting around for the technology and economics that will allow forest treatments to be limited to dry brush and spindly saplings.
"Millions of acres of national forests, overrun with diseased trees and dry brush, are one lightning strike away from catastrophe," House Majority Leader Rep. Tom DeLay warned late Tuesday in keeping up the air of imminent peril. "After last year's devastating wildfires, the need for this presidential initiative is urgent."