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'Cheery' notes on wildfires

BY Al Knight / Denver Post Columnist
July 07, 2002


Just before Colorado suffered its worst forest fire on record, the Sierra Club's website contained a cheery little quiz on forest fires intended to demonstrate two points.

The first was that wildfires are natural and therefore good, and that logging is unnatural and serves only the interests of humans and is therefore bad.

That quiz has since been replaced with pages and pages of defensive-sounding material designed to show that the Sierra Club has always been supportive of policies that protect families from the risk of wildfires. While it is delightful to see the Sierra Club do the environmental shuffle, the club isn't the depository for all the "facts" that the public might find useful in this situation.

For the record, here are a few of the true-or-false questions and the answers the Sierra Club was providing just a few weeks ago:
  • Logging helps reduce the risk of forest fires. The Sierra Club's answer: False.
  • Forest fires pose a major threat to homes and communities. The Sierra Club's answer: False.
  • Fires are devastating to fish and wildlife habitat. The Sierra Club's answer: False.
  • Salvage logging after forest fires actually speeds habitat recovery. The Sierra Club's answer: False.
  • Areas with roads experience more numerous and more intense fires than unroaded areas. The Sierra Club's answer: True.
Leave aside for the moment the deliberate lack of precision in the questions and the use of terms like "more" and "devastating" and "major threat" and "reduce." The message comes through clearly enough. Cutting trees and building roads is very bad. Forest fires are neat. Because of the recent wildfires in several states, and the attention now focused on the past policies of environmental groups, the Sierra Club has switched to a new set of word games designed to shift attention elsewhere.

A statement from Executive Director Carl Pope says the club wants "all necessary federal resources" used to protect affected families. It also has always supported "prescribed burns" to reduce the risk of larger fires, and, he adds, "the Forest Service hasn't been hampered from preventing fires by the filing of thousands of lawsuits."

A couple of comments are in order. First, Pope isn't providing helpful information. It is not useful at this point to learn that the club supports prescribed burns. It would be much more useful if Pope provided the public with the long list of the things the club doesn't support, like, for instance, anything involving the cutting and removal of a tree if it in any way requires the services of a company associated with the timber industry.

It is also terribly misleading to say that "thousands" of lawsuits haven't been filed and that only a tiny portion of the Forest Service fuel-reduction projects have been challenged under an established administrative procedure.

Percentage isn't important. What's important is that some of the largest and most important projects have been challenged. The reason "thousands" of lawsuits haven't been filed is that the Forest Service can be quite nicely tied in knots by administrative appeals and by the preparation work that is necessary to withstand threatened legal action.

The most pernicious feature of the Sierra Club material, however, is the tendency to present issues in an either-or fashion. This is nonsense. There is no logical reason why the adoption of one approach (prescribed burns, say) precludes the adoption of other policies.

The Sierra Club and other groups claim that the government needs to do little more than require homeowners to clear or thin wooded areas near structures, the implication being that fires could then naturally burn themselves out. There may well be value to such programs, but they should not be used as an excuse to do nothing more.

The Sierra Club and other groups doubtless prefer their long run of fawning press coverage to the current situation, but it is much too early to turn off the spotlight. Some of these organizations want to ban all future road construction and all "commercial resource extraction on public lands." Unless Americans are ready to change the signs on U.S. forests from "Land of many uses" to "Land of no use," let the public's attention remain on these groups and on the still-unanswered question of how environmental "politics" may have increased the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

Al Knight (alknight@mindspring.com) ) is a member of the Denver Post editorial board. His column appears Wednesday and Sunday.


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