Balance needed in forest management debate

As wildfires rage across millions of acres of western forests and

rangelands, bureaucrats, politicians, environmentalists and foresters are

doing a lot of finger pointing about who's to blame.

For example, foresters say, "I told you so." They point out that if the

U.S. Forest Service had been allowed to manage the forests;harvest

mature trees, implement small controlled burns during

wetter months, remove debri (slash), and replant and

thin young trees, the fire hazard would have been

reduced. They say those restrictions, driven by

environmentalists, have allowed "fuel,"

or forest debris, to accumulate on the forest floor and have left acres of

dead and diseased trees standing, only to burn.

Environmentalists counter that logging practices are to blame,

removing the large, fire-resistant trees and leaving volatile logging debris

and small trees. They favor a

"hands-off" policy that discourages logging,

tree thinning and firefighting in the forests.

Meanwhile, state and federal officials have followed a "let it

burn" policy that endangers public safety. You only have to look to the

1988 Yellowstone National Park inferno as proof.

This debate sounds similar to one that took place 40 years ago. Back

in the 1960s, I spent a lot of time in western Montana's Bitterroot Valley _

eye of the firestorms currently sweeping across the intermountain west.

Parts of the valley were embroiled in a clear-cutting controversy.

Years earlier, in an attempt to eliminate insect infestations and diseases,

including a stubborn and contagious fungus called dwarf mistletoe, the Forest

Service adopted a policy of clear-cutting steep hillsides, terracing them like

the rice plantations in China and replanting them with the more disease

and fire-resistant Ponderosa pine.

Officials argued that selling diseased trees for timber, replenished

the government's forest management budget and footed the bill for roads

that provide firefighters with better access to wildfires. Fresh on their minds,

no doubt, were the 1910 fires that scorched three million acres in

Washington, Idaho and Montana. By the time that firestorm burned itself out

in the wet, winter months, 78 firefighters were dead, entire towns were

burned to the ground and 40,000 square miles of land were left in ashes.

However, in the 1960s, environmentalists objected to the logging

and terracing policy. Many of their objections were valid. Clear-cuts on

dry southwestern slopes had scalped areas that should have been logged

selectively, or not at all.

Since the 1960s, government officials have increasingly adopted

this "hands-off" approach to forest management. Many of the roadless

areas in the Bitterroot National Forest and neighboring national forests in

western Montana and northern Idaho were designated by Congress as

protected wilderness or left undeveloped by Forest Service mandate. In recent years,

supporters of this approach convinced politicians and bureaucrats that

making these areas off-limits to human activity would preserve the

tree-lined valleys and hillsides forever.

But forests are not wall paintings; they are living trees and shrubs

that are born, mature, die and are reborn, often through fire.

The bottom line is that nothing man does will change the laws of

nature. No law or regulation can keep the forests from burning when the

conditions are ripe for wildfire. The best we can hope for is forest

management policies that balance environmental protection and human safety.

The environmentalists' "hands-off" policy is not the only answer.

It may work in remote wilderness areas, but near cities, towns, and small

communities where people live and use the forest, leaving the forest to the

laws of nature won't work.

The deadly 1910 fire was a vivid example of how nature "cleanses"

an unmanaged forest. If a similar fire happened today, it would

endanger hundreds of thousands of lives and destroy billions of dollars worth

of homes, farms and businesses.

The public and politicians need to come to that realization.

Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington

Business, Washington state's chamber of commerce. Visit AWB on the

Web at www.awb.org.

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