New Bush forest policy taps into growing consensus
By Mindy Cameron, Seattle Times
As galling it may be to hard-core environmentalists, President Bush is
right about how to grow healthier, less-fire-prone forests.
It didn't take clever White House politicos to phony up a setting last
week for Bush's announcement of a new forest policy. Flames from
Oregon's Biscuit fire, the nation's largest so far this year, sculpted a
In its wake, the fire that has burned 500,000 acres in Southwest Oregon
left clear evidence of the value of active forest management in reducing
fire damage. A few weeks after flames had moved on, a 400-acre patch of
national forest that had been thinned last year was showing signs of
recovery. Some trees were left standing and vegetation already was
sprouting at their base.
Nearby, in a portion of the forest that had been dense with trees and
woody debris, the devastation was more complete.
After touring the burn site, Bush announced his plan. Along with
thinning the forests, he also proposes to thin the thicket of
regulations that now stalls and stymies many plans for forest
Predictably, environmentalists are in an uproar. Last week in The
Washington Post, an ecologist for the Wilderness Society characterized
Bush's plan as suspension of environmental laws.
Hyperbole makes for good political rhetoric, but doesn't get the job
done in the forest.
Streamlining, not suspending, environmental review is a more accurate
description of Bush's proposal. There's good reason to streamline.
Numerous projects aimed at reducing potential fire damage some to
thin, others to clean up after damage by storms or insects have
been stalled by opposition from environmental organizations. These
groups are well versed in using administrative appeals, and ultimately
the courts, to prevent activity in the national forests.
Like many who call themselves environmentalists, I have great
appreciation for the work of individuals and organizations that have
helped reduce logging and road-building in national forests.
But for me, the point was always balanced management of forests, not a
halt to all commercial logging. A total ban now seems to be the goal of
at least some environmental activists.
So great is the resistance to commercial logging in public forests that
some environmentalists support thinning of forests as a fire-reduction
strategy, but only if no logs go to commercial use. Instead of selling
trees to pay for the operation, it's suggested that taxpayers foot the
bill for all thinning.
That's not going to happen. Run that string out and all you get is more
fires, with trees that could have been harvested and put to good use
going up in flames.
Lost in the environmentalist hand-wringing following Bush's proposal is
this important reality: Consensus is emerging over the need to restore
forests to health.
There is near-universal understanding that past practices regarding
wildfires have been misguided. No one, save for a few on the far fringe
of environmentalism, suggests that forests could not be better managed.
It is a fragile consensus, to be sure. The debate now is largely over
rules of the game how many trees are cut, where, by whom, who
gets to decide and what happens to the trees.
The path to working all this out has already been created. It's the
10-year strategy developed by Western governors in collaboration with
numerous interest groups, including tribes, industry, environmentalists,
federal, state and local governments. It was finalized in May, a month
before the first of this season's many devastating fires broke out in
Environmentalists like to talk about the plan's goal of reducing fuels
where homes and forests blend, the so-called urban-wildland interface.
That's the easy part; everyone supports saving lives and homes.
So far, I haven't heard much about the rest of the plan. It is, in fact,
far-reaching. It calls for reduction of fire risk in communities and
The key word is collaboration. The governors' plan defines collaborators
as citizens and government at all levels; it specifically rejects
traditional government hierarchies.
The plan calls for timely decisions at each level and assumes active
forest and rangeland management, including thinning that produces
commercial or pre-commercial product.
Hey, folks, this is what Bush is talking about.
The reaction to Bush's plan shows just how fragile the forest consensus
is. He didn't say anything that isn't already in the Western governors'
agreement, albeit in carefully nuanced language.
Bush doesn't do nuance. The words last week from this plainspoken
president who has not been a friend to environmentalists were like
putting a match to a controlled burn. There's fire and there's smoke,
but the outcome will be worth all the commotion.
Mindy Cameron's column appears alternate Wednesdays on editorial pages
of The Times. E-mail her at email@example.com or write her c/o
The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111.