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North Idaho can learn from Arizona disaster

All that black is giving green a bad name.
Coeur d'Alene Press
July 07, 2002


In the charred remains of some half-million Arizona acres of what used to be the most pristine ponderosa pine forest on the planet, questions still smolder.

Foremost among them: Did this need to happen?
And from a more provincial perspective, could it happen here in North Idaho?

Sadly, the answer to the first question is no. Countless old-growth trees, more than 400 homes and many hundreds of thousands of dollars in firefighting funds did not need to go up in smoke. And even more sadly for us in North Idaho, the answer to the second question is an emphatic yes. In fact, we believe that the Rodeo Fire could provide a disaster blueprint for other regions if forest policy and procedure isn't radically altered. And soon.

What's ironic to the point of being tragic is, those who purport to do battle on Mother Nature's behalf are in fact turning out to be her worst earthly enemy. Extremist environmental groups whose best intentions are to prevent the harm that man can do to his surroundings are killing the forests so many level-headed Americans want to preserve. They do so by using the courts to halt all activities that keep forests healthy and at low risk of all-consuming infernos like the Rodeo.

To these few but potent groups, science and common sense have no merit. The nation's foremost forestry experts, including Wally Covington of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, have concluded that thinning our overgrown woodlands is the only way they can sustain long-term, healthy growth while reducing the risk of disastrous blazes.

Yet groups like the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity persist in blocking logging and thinning projects by tying them up for years in court. An investigation by the Mesa Tribune found that the Apache-Sitgreaves forest, the prime victim of the Rodeo Fire, was not allowed to be thinned since 1999 because of a lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity.

"We're litigating while the forest burns," Pat Jackson, a regional appeals and litigation officer for the U.S. Forest Service, told the Tribune.

Closer to home, we have all the makings of a similar disaster. As on the Apache-Sitgreaves, much of our Panhandle-area forest is overcrowded with some 3,000 trees per acre. Compare that to forestry experts' estimate that 50 or fewer trees per acre is ideal, and you begin to grasp the severity of the situation. Parts of these woods are so overcrowded that birds cannot fly through them.

Please don't listen to those who, no matter how well-intentioned, say North Idaho is different because we haven't endured the severe drought that's plagued the Southwest. That's true, but it's also completely missing the big picture. The big picture is that our lack of drought has opened a brief window, a short time, in which we have an opportunity to manage our forests sensibly and safely before our version of the Rodeo Fire hits home.

We urge members of the Idaho congressional delegation to support Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl and U.S. Rep. J.D. Hayworth, among others, in forging legislation that will support the maintenance of these wooded national treasures.

It's hard to see any good coming from the massive destruction of this precious resource in northern Arizona, but there might be some. If the Congress as a whole now better understands why intelligent logging and thinning must be carried out for the forests' own good, then maybe all that annihilation will not have been in vain.


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