Blue Planet: Fire away

By DAN WHIPPLE, UPI Science News   |   May 16, 2003 at 6:39 PM
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The Bush administration's Healthy Forests Initiative would allow increased logging on federal lands, ostensibly to prevent wildfires by reducing the catastrophic fuel loads that support them. But most of the logging would be done for the benefit of the timber industry and be conducted far away from the "red zones," the areas where suburbia bumps up against relatively undisturbed forests.

Even logging in areas close to the red zones is of limited usefulness. Most of the work that needs to be done to protect homes and businesses from forest fires involves changes to the buildings themselves and to immediately adjacent land. But because the vast majority of that land is privately held, the work must be done by the property owners -- not the federal government.

The Bush plan would open vast tracts of forest to lumber companies to "protect" homes that are far from the logging.

Not that you could tell much of this from the administration's public statements.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, "Wildfires burned over 7.1 million acres of public and private lands last summer, an area larger than the states of Maryland and Rhode Island combined. This affected hundreds of communities across the country, as 21 firefighters were killed battling these fires, tens of thousands of people were evacuated from their homes and thousands of structures were destroyed."

Based on this reasoning, the House Agriculture Committee last week approved the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003, a chunk of the administration's initiative.

USDA Secretary Anne Veneman further supported the legislation in a written statement: "Moving the bill forward will help carry out President Bush's vision to improve forest and rangeland health through the Healthy Forests Initiative. This bipartisan legislation will further our ongoing efforts with states, Indian tribes and local communities to repair forests and rangelands threatened with catastrophic fire from fuel buildup or imperiled by disease and insect infestations."

Perhaps.

Nationwide, the admittedly loosely defined red zone consists of only about 1.9 million acres. By opening logging on 190 million acres when the red zones constitute only 1.9 million acres the Bush administration is multiplying the "cure" for this limited risk by a factor of roughly a 100.

Moreover, 1.5 million acres of the red zones are on private land, according to a forest service official who looked at the issue last year. The Wilderness Society has studied roughly 2,000 towns listed in the Federal Register as located in red zones. Taking a half-mile buffer around each community, the society found only 17 percent of the red zone is on federal land -- 83 percent is private.

The state of Colorado reached similar findings when it analyzed the rapidly growing Front Range area of the Rockies. Laying a 2-kilometer limit around each red zone town, it found only 20 percent lay on federal land -- the only land the Bush policy can address.

The real intent of the policy may be made more clear by administration activities in Oregon. Wendell Wood, of the Oregon Natural Resources Council, cites a "fire hazard reduction timber sale" in the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge in southern Oregon that he termed "a misapplication of financial resources to protect non-existing structures and residences" -- in other words the government was permitting logging to reduce the hazard in a place where there are no buildings.

Even logging within the vicinity of red-zone buildings is only part of what it takes to get the job done.

"People have confused the issue of fire's role in the forest and fire's role in the red zone ... I think it's time for private property owners to stand up and be counted, to quit acting as though they are victims of fire policy," said Tom Wolf, the author of a book, "In Fires Way: A Practical Guide to Life in the Wildfire Danger Zone." Wolf is in a unique position to appreciate the rewards and the threats of red zone living. He has doctorates in both English and forestry and, while trying to clear his own land of hazards, he accidentally started a forest fire that threatened his home and that of his neighbors.

Wolf said there are several fairly simple, inexpensive things that people living in the red zone can do to protect their homes -- putting on a metal roof is probably the single most effective thing. Homeowners also need to create a "defensible space" around their dwellings, in which they remove most of the flammable material, removing grasses, brush, trees and other fuels, he explained.

None of these steps to protect property requires logging any of the 190 million acres of federal lands, as the Bush initiative proposes.

There is delicious irony in the fact that past timber policy has placed the forests in this precarious position. For more than 100 years, the federal government has attempted to suppress forest fires wherever they occur, in large part to protect large standing timber for commercial exploitation. This has resulted in the buildup of extreme fuel loads. Combined with drought on many federal lands, and a drier, warmer climate resulting from climate change, there has been a dramatic increase in forest fires -- and the trend is likely to continue.

"In acreage burned and in suppression costs incurred, 2002 was the biggest year on record, Steven Running, a forestry professor at the University of Montana in Missoula, told UPI's Blue Planet. "We also said that in 2000. Back then that was the biggest year on record ... If you look from 1988 to the present, something like five out of the last 14 years have been considered unusual years. Well, it isn't unusual anymore."

"It sure seems like what used to be an extreme year is becoming more common," said Running.

"Unnaturally extreme fires are just one consequence of the deteriorating forest and rangeland health that now affects more than 190 million acres of public land, an area twice the size of California," a USDA fact sheet states.

The question of what constitutes a "healthy forest" is a complex one. The administration's concept seems to be a healthy forest is one that has no fires and provides commercial timber. But that view tends to ignore other benefits that forests can provide -- including benefits that result from wildfires.

"Without a doubt, wildfires are good for wildlife," Montana State University wildlife specialist Jim Knight told UPI. "Old growth forests are not as good for wildlife species as early succession is." Timbering does not produce the same ecological effect as fire.

Logging is not the answer, Wolf said. "We have too much wood in the forests ready to burn," he said. But, "I can't think of any ecologically sane way to dispose of that wood to integrate it into the economy."

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