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Huge fires call for new approach

Our View: Bush administration's new forest policy makes sense.

By John Webster, For the Editorial Board, Spokesman Review
8/27/02


Hug a tree too tight, these days, and you might get incinerated.

Here in forest fire country, we can see close to home -- too close to home, in some cases -- the results of national forest management practices that can only be described as nuts.

Last week in Oregon, President Bush announced that he intends to restore some common sense and modern forestry to the national forests. Good for him. These forests have spent too long in the fond embrace of lawyers, federal judges and the environmental litigation and obstructionism industry.

Granted, there were reasons for the recent decades of litigating to block logging, litigating to block road building, litigating to block forest planning and litigating to interfere even with salvage operations in the wake of tree disease. By the latter 1900s, forests had been heavily logged. Harm was done. And a political movement, aiming to silence chain saws at all costs, was born.

Neither extreme is good for the forests. Reckless scalping of the land does harm. So does mistreating the land and then refusing to let modern foresters heal it. The national forests are not in a natural condition. Decades of mistreatment, decades of fire suppression and recent decades of political paralysis turned some areas into dense-packed tinderboxes for unnaturally devastating fires. With suburbs pushing to the edge of the forests and vacation homes planted deep in the woods, fires can kill people as well as trees.

Meanwhile, foresters steadily have been learning from the errors of decades past -- changing standards for road building, tree planting, harvesting and forest fire management.

This summer's fires as well as a growing body of forestry research offer overwhelming evidence that humans have made a mess -- and need to intervene, with action and intelligence rather than a continuation of politicking and litigation.

So far this year 5.9 million acres of public and private land have burned nationwide. This exceeds the record-setting 2000 fire season. Twenty firefighters have died.

It would be irresponsible to lock up the forests and hope "natural" wildfires might heal them. Decades of fire suppression, among other mistakes, prevented forests from healing themselves with low-intensity fires. Western Washington's Douglas firs, for example, survived centuries of low-intensity fires. But fire suppression allows forests to fill with flammable debris. So does a refusal to allow thinning and salvage operations. Now, when fires break out, some explode into unnatural storms of flame that kill even the largest trees and sterilize the soil.

In Oregon's Squires Peak area, foresters fought through a thicket of litigation to prevent firestorms via thinning operations. This summer, a fire in thinned areas left the ecosystem in good shape, but in unthinned areas, fire killed the trees.

The solution, Bush contends, is to let foresters manage the forests again. Thinning operations can help prevent disasters lethal to trees and their human admirers. This will require changes in the federal laws and regulations that allowed politicking, litigation and paralysis to become a substitute for forestry.

John Webster/For the editorial board


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