We must all work together to protect our forests
By Stephany Bales, Special to The Spokesman-Review
In the wake of President Bush's recent call to begin thinning our forests to reduce wildfire risk, some of the country's most outspoken environmental groups are crying foul as loud as they can. It is too bad that groups like the Sierra Club have lost focus and now find themselves on the wrong side of a desperate battle to save our national forests.
The Sierra Club and others say Bush's Forest Health Initiative, unveiled in Oregon recently, is a timber industry plot to log old trees, take the profits and run. They claim that Bush is using western catastrophic wildfires to open up vulnerable forests to the mercy of the chainsaw. The plan to thin our forests is nothing more than a Republican administration caving to the narrow interests of powerful lobbies, they say.
They're wrong. And few are listening to their criticism in this year of dying forests and burning homes. What forest management opponents say just doesn't make sense to people in Arizona and Colorado who look out their windows to see vast forests clearcut by wildfire where beautiful old-growth forests once stood. I don't think most people believe that thinning forests to reduce fire risk is worse than fires killing forests altogether. It's a message that doesn't make sense. Most everyone now agrees that thinning forests can help reduce the impact fires have on our forests and that we have very little time to get the work done.
The problem -- overcrowded, stressed forests -- is widespread.
Near Flagstaff, Ariz., a city surrounded by the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the world, there are now 3,000 trees growing per acre where 20 to 50 trees used to grow. Many of those trees are very small, unnaturally so, because of overcrowding. And many other of those trees are fairly large, their tops touching, creating an unbroken web of green for miles and miles, a perfect environment for a killing crown fire. The issue is not what we take off the land, rather it's what we leave behind. The argument that all we want to do is take the big trees is unfounded. What we want are forests that are healthy and well-spaced enough to survive the next fires that pass.
There is consensus on the solution -- among those who want to solve the problem that is.
Somebody has to cut a lot of those trees down and either sell them or get rid of them some other way if our forests are to survive. Some environmental groups say we should thin only the forests around houses and communities, and sacrifice the vast wild forests in the backcountry. Oh, and taxpayers should pay the bill and loggers should have nothing to do with it. But the forests in the backcountry are the ones that protect endangered plants and animals and provide shade streams for threatened fish. Those are the forests that give sanctuary to all creatures, including humans weakened from too much civilization. How does it make sense to abandon them to fire when we can protect them and the communities that have grown up around them?
Time magazine recently said that many environmental groups continue to oppose market-based, environmental reforms and instead remain wedded to the `mandate, regulate and litigate' model of the past.
Instead of suing the U.S. Forest Service and throwing obstacles in front of any effort to make thinning our forests possible, the Sierra Club and its partners have a real opportunity to join with us to make sure the work gets done right, and soon.
The timber industry is not the enemy here. In fact, this debate really has nothing to do with us. At issue is how we ensure that our national forests are alive and growing into the next century. Our folks are merely the ones who have the expertise to help make that happen, if the public decides that's what it wants. While we cannot and should not exclude fire from the environment, we can and must re-create conditions that allow our forests to thrive with fire. We remain committed to doing what we can to make that a reality.
Stephany Bales is vice president of communication of the Intermountain Forest Association.