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New Bush forest policy taps into growing consensus

By Mindy Cameron, Seattle Times
9/4/02


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 compelling backdrop.

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 management.

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 Colorado.

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 environment. 

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 mindycameron@earthlink.net or write her c/o The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111.


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