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Forestry in the fifth dimension

Mike Branch / The Washington Times
July 15, 2002


I don't watch reruns of "The Twilight Zone" anymore. I don't have to. I live in one. I'm sure I'm not the first person to compare Washington to that famous "middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition," but I'm pretty sure the debate now raging around forest fires and the National Forest System would make even Rod Serling himself shake his head and say, "No, too strange."

So far this year, forest fires have been ripping through our unhealthy national forests at three times the annual average. The name-calling and laying of blame has been ripping through the media just as fast. More than 3 million acres have burned and we are not quite at the halfway point of the wildfire season. Human lives have been lost. Hundreds of homes and businesses have been turned to ash. Countless animals and their habitats have been destroyed. Water and air quality are being degraded, and the natural beauty of our national forests is being ruined.

I feel like I'm in "The Twilight Zone" because amid this carnage we are actually still engaging in a debate about whether we should actively manage our national forests. The really "Zoney" part is that we all accept these people who say they are for the environment — even calling themselves environmentalists — yet it is their philosophy that has brought us to this level of crisis. I'm not trying to cast blame; I'm stating a fact.

Forget the hundreds of lawsuits and appeals the environmental activists have filed to halt government attempts to actively manage the forests. Forget how proudly and defiantly former Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck defends his reckless and illegal recasting of the Forest Service mission which undoubtedly exacerbated this crisis. Forget the loony arguments that logging is somehow responsible for the fires in Arizona and Colorado — where there hasn't been any real commercial forestry in 25 years. Forget that Rep. Jay Inslee is introducing a rider to the Interior appropriations bill to codify the most irresponsible and shortsighted forest policy initiative to come along in 50 years.

Forget all that and focus on this: We failed to take action to prevent a repeat of the disastrous wildfire season of 2000 — and the consequences of our inaction are smoldering on the evening news. If we fail again to learn the lessons of this season, God help us all.

As a real environmentalist —one who actually knows something about the environment — I am disheartened by the hijacking of the moniker by the national environmental activist groups. Their armchair environmentalism has sidelined the one group who probably knows more about the forests than any other: the men and women who live and work in the forests — like I've done every day for the last 26 years since receiving my college degree in forest resources and conservation.

Why exclude these experts? The activists discount us because we make our living by seeking to balance ecological, social and economic objectives in the forest. (That's code for "we work in the forest products industry.")

Environmental activists have worked long and hard (and successfully) to marginalize industry in this debate. They don't want us involved in finding a solution to the forest-health crisis because, let's face it, they just don't like us. But like us or not, our forests don't burn. Not like public forests do. Is it because we are better at fighting fires? Is it because our trees are inflammable? Is it that lightning never strikes our land? Are we just really, really lucky? It is, of course, none of those.

The real reason our land doesn't burn like public land is we actively manage our forests. We manage them like they are an investment because they are. Not just an investment of dollars, but of blood, sweat and tears — and not just for us, but for the countless species who depend on the forest for their homes, and for the communities who depend on forests for clean drinking water, clean air and recreational opportunities. These are the very values I now see going up in smoke.

As the debate about how we manage our national forests moves forward, I hope we will let history and science be our guides. While we're at it, we should also be careful of accepting the titles people assign themselves as we begin this journey, "a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's the signpost up ahead."

Mike Branch is a professional forester with a major U.S. forest products company. He is a member of the National Audubon Society and sits on the Governing Board of the St. Johns River Water Management District in Northeast Florida.


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