There are many reasons to fear fire, and to all of those reasons we can add one more: It is another excuse to give federal subsidies to the logging industry.
At the end of last month the Bush administration announced its "healthy forests initiative," to "prevent damage caused by catastrophic wildfires."
As outlined in documents released from the White House, this policy is vague in the extreme. Essentially, it is a two-pronged effort. First, the administration wants private industry to cut down more trees on federal lands and, second, it wants to make it more difficult for citizens -- especially environmental activist citizens -- to object to the first prong.
In the American West, the U.S. Forest Service administers about 141 million acres of land -- an area the size of the combined states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York. The land is mostly in 11 states, primarily those large, square-shaped ones west of the 100th meridian, plus the three on the Pacific Coast.
To hear the Bush administration tell it, those 11 states are crammed with contentious tree-huggers who are stopping the march of progress for the sheer pleasure of it.
"Between January of 2001 and July of 2002, 48 percent of all Forest Service mechanical fuels reduction projects were appealed. In northern Idaho and Montana, 100 percent of mechanical fuels reduction projects were appealed," according to "Healthy Forests: An initiative for wildfire prevention and stronger communities," the report describing the White House forest policy. These appeals slowed down the cutting and, by implication, put at risk the homes and cabins that people have backed up into these fuel rich areas.
Yes, environmental groups and others do occasionally appeal a decision to cut down trees, often because the U.S. Forest Service has been so diligent about doing the cutting. There was a time, not long ago, when the late Sen. Frank Church, D-Ore., was forced to sponsor legislation banning clear-cutting because the denuded slopes in his home state were inspiring catastrophic floods.
The Forest Service once was filled with people -- and quite a few remain -- who think the raison d'etre of the agency is to cut down trees. The fact that most of the western timber lands are unproductive did not stop them, and the fact that much of the nation's remaining wildlife relied on those forests did not interest them.
This has changed, as has the Forest Service. People no longer want only timber from their national forests. They want wildlife, recreation, wilderness, ecological services, watershed protection and other goodies that forests provide.
People also occasionally appeal a timber sale. They suggest cutting down the trees might not be the best use of a particular stretch of federal property.
However, these actions do not happen nearly as often as the Bush administration's report would have you believe. "Vital projects are often significantly delayed and constrained by procedural delays and litigation," the document states.
According to the General Accounting Office, however, last year the Forest Service spent $205 million on 1,671 forest-thinning projects designed mostly to reduce fire risks. Of those, only 20 -- about 1 percent -- were appealed, and none resulted in a lawsuit.
In Colorado, for instance, there was only one appeal of 93 federal thinning projects. The Upper Blue Stewardship Project in the White River National Forest would have allowed the logging of 1.2 million board feet of timber in an area being considered for wilderness designation. One of the entities appealing the case was the Breckinridge Ski Area, not usually known around the state as an anti-development crusader.
The appeal was made to attempt to balance not only ecological issues but competing and incompatible economic issues. Cutting timber on federal lands has been a money-losing proposition since Lewis and Clark cut down trees for campfires.
The Forest Service's timber program continues to baffle the experts. Until 1998, the agency produced the Timber Sale Program Information and Reporting System report. After that year, it stopped putting it out, probably out of embarrassment.
In 1998, however, timber sales in the national forests in 10 of 11 western states lost a combined total of $109 million, according to TSPIRS.
California, a trend-setter in all matters western, led the parade with $33.4 million in losses. Washington lost $20 million, Arizona $10.5 million, Idaho $9.7 million, Colorado $8.5 million, Montana $7.3 million and so on, in a cascade of red ink. Only in Oregon did federal timber sales make money for the Treasury, a positive $3.4 million.
So the return to those halcyon days of unfettered timber sales is cynical in the extreme. It is true fire is a threat to homes built in the woods but most often this is a symptom of Mohammed coming to the mountain rather than the reverse. People have been building deeper and deeper into the woods, a woods in which fuel has been building up for a hundred years under Smokey Bear's regime of fire suppression.
As a general rule, fires -- even intense crown fires like those bemoaned in the administration report -- are good for forests. After the 1988 Yellowstone fires, ponderosa pine seedling density increased eight-fold, plants species diversity increased, ungulates -- hoofed wildlife -- found more and more varied food sources.
That large fires do not override ordinary biologic processes is the critical lesson from Yellowstone, the most thoroughly studied of this generation of catastrophic fires.
Logging, on the other hand is bad for the woods. A report prepared two years ago for the Sierra Club said, "A Forest Service survey of Oregon's Clackamas watershed found out of 254 mudslides, almost 75 percent occurred in areas that were logged or roaded. After winter storms of 1995-96, the Forest Service found 70 percent of Idaho's 422 landslides were linked to logging roads."
The administration solution -- if that is the word we want -- is to subsidize economically harmful logging, which will produce environmentally harmful results, in order to protect private homeowners who are building in areas they know to be hazardous.
How about if we looked to the free market for a solution? The evidence is there would be no logging because it is a money-losing proposition on most of these lands and, it turns out, there already is a privately funded, non-governmental system for dealing with the forest homes -- it is called homeowners insurance. If a home is being built in a fire prone area, its insurance rates should reflect that risk.
Libertarian economist Randall O'Toole of the Thoreau Institute in Oregon has suggested simply treating private residences, and not messing with federal lands at all.
Forest Service fire researcher Jack Cohen has found houses and other structures will be safe from fire if the roof and landscaping within 150 feet of a structure are fireproofed. The Forest Service says there are 1.9 million high-risk acres in the wildland-urban interface, of which 1.5 million are private. Treating these acres, not an area the size of New England, will protect houses. Fire breaks along federal land boundaries, not treatment of lands within those boundaries, will protect other private property.
"Once private lands are protected, the Forest Service can let most fires on federal lands burn," O'Toole said. "Fire ecologists agree that letting fires burn is the best and most efficient method of restoring forest health. But under current policies, the Forest Service is suppressing 99.7 percent of all fires."
The Bush administration simply is using fire as an excuse to reopen public lands to rip and run logging. It is an idea that has been tried before, and been proven to be a bad one.