Logging and Sawmilling Information for the Western United States
December 2000 - Volume 25 Number 12
What to do in the aftermath of the 2000 Forest fire season
By Tim Buckley
Forest fires, 106,400 of them, scorched more than 7.2 million acres of timberland in the US last year (2000). Twothirds of the acreage burned was on federally managed land. Historically there have been bigger fire years, but no more than a couple would compare in the last 50 years. The cost to fight them also reached historic levels – perhaps more than $900 million for the year, when the smoke finally settled in December.
The rhetorical wildfires continued to blaze on through the political season. Volumes were written about who was to blame. In a nutshell, the timber industry pointed at the federal administration – both Democratic and Republican – for curtailing responsible forest management practices over the past 90 years. Those neglectful ways escalated during the Clinton/Gore years, loggers say, allowing federal forestlands to become overgrown and susceptible to disease and catastrophic fires. Spurred on by environmentalist law suits, the government reduced logging activities by 75 percent in western forests over the past 10 years. With no removal of dense and dangerous fuels, healthy forest fires became towering infernos. For their part, environmental ists claim that logging and road building were the culprits, that removing the choice commercial trees only makes the rest more dense and volatile. The government has accepted some of the blame, but pointed to the unusually hot and dry weather as the villain. All blaming aside, the notion of losing human lives, precious timber, wildlife and personal property to wildfires has reached a critical mass.
Tipping the scales towards decisive action last year was the threat of nuclear disasters, when fires overran parts of Hanford and Los Alamos reservation lands. For the first time in many decades, government agencies and environmental organizations started agreeing with the timber industry about the value of mechanical thinning and prescribed burns. "If you thin the forests and then burn every two to 20 years, the forests are almost impervious to fire as they were for 10,000 years since the Ice Age," said Potlatch C o r p o r a t i o n spokesman Frank Carroll.
The Clinton Administration responded to the forest crisis with a report and a modest proposal, to help pay for the damage last year and begin reversing some past trends in forest management. In November, Congress agreed to the $1.6 billion Clinton plan, while Republicans added another $200 million to it. The money is, and will continue to be used for a rash of things in 2001:
Rex Storm, a forest policy analyst with Associated Oregon Loggers, said the money allocated for fuel reduction is only a fraction of the $1.8 billion. "More than half will go to pay debt for suppressing fires last year," Storm said. "The amount left over to conduct meaningful fuel reduction is very small. And," he continued, "there are no timber sales planned with this funding, only thinning.” The government reports that 40 million acres of federal land are at "high risk of catastrophic fire.” Initial government estimates call for eliminating fire risk on 16 million acres in five years.
Randle Phillips, deputy chief of the Forest Service, said their agency has dramatically increased the acreage it burned and thinned in recent years (to 1.4 million acres a year, in 1999) but said fixing the problem is not going to come quickly. The $257 million earmarked for thinning and prescribed burns in 2001 would first target communities in and near federal lands most vulnerable to wildfires. Storm doesn’t believe that money will be nearly enough for the estimated 1.8 million acres surrounding those communities in need. Storm is also skeptical that the money will be more than "a one time shot in the arm.” He’s not alone in his skepticism. US Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage, R-Idaho, said "This is just the latest in a series of broad brush administration plans, none of which are supported by any meaningful detail.” Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, called the budget request for thinning forests "totally inadequate.”
Senator Larry Craig, RIdaho, was more positive. "The report released by the administration… suggests that they have at least recognized that our nation’s publicly owned forests are not healthy, and that this forest health problem is contributing to our current wildfires.” He added, "The action of just thinning forests around our communities will be a huge step. I envision a process where we walk into our back yards with a chain saw, ax and matches and thin our forests from the inside out.” Out of the ashes of past fires have come new cooperative fuel reduction and forest management plans. With a core of thinning and prescribed burning, the new practices stand as models now being championed by government land management agencies, forest industry leaders and even – to some degree – environmentalists. "This is the way it’s supposed to work," said Linda Blum, an environmental consultant from Quincy, California, an old logging town northwest of Lake Tahoe.
Blum was speaking about a wide swatch of forestland spared by a fire that raced through the Plumas National Forest near Quincy last year. When the fire reached the thinned area, it stopped, leaving many of the remaining trees inside untouched while consuming everything else around it. In 1992, Blum and a group of warring locals gathered to work out a compromise: to reduce fire threat while keeping alive the economies of northeast California National Forest communities. The five-year plan would thin out 220,000 fire prone acres, giving jobs to loggers and bringing $2.3 billion of economic activity to eight counties. The plan even involved an alternative fuel business, whereby scrap wood from the thinning process would heat ethanol fuel making plants.
Despite its success and even greater promise, the Quincy plan has been hampered by lack of funds and environmental concerns – which include the complaint that a single community should not be dictating forest policy for federal land. "Some people say we sold out to the timber guys," said an optimistic Blum. "But I don’t even view this plan as a compromise; it’s more of a reconciliation of political, social and ecological interests .” John Stuart, a fire ecology expert and professor of forestry at Humboldt State University, said mechanical thinning is an important component of a comprehensive fuel reduction effort. "Prescribed burning is extremely expensive, and sometimes the hazards are too great, especially around interface (developed) areas. Sometimes you have to cut some trees just to reduce the fuels sufficiently to allow safe burning. It’s politically volatile," Stuart added, "but if you could sell some trees, you could ultimately have money to pay for the treatment of additional acres .”
Fred Ebel, president of the Society of American Foresters, agreed with Stuart wholeheartedly. In testimony to the Congressional Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health in September, Ebel said: "…we cannot simply reintroduce fire to the landscape because the fuel load is too great. We must treat many of these forests with a variety of methods before we can successfully reintroduce fire.” Ebel went on to detail some specific elements of a comprehensive plan:
Owen Squires, director of the Rocky Mountain Region, Pulp and Paperworkers’ Resource Council said: "Does it matter if the Forest Service foolishly stopped light burning in the 1920s, or that environmental groups stubbornly refused to let the government thin forests at Los Alamos? If we start right now, working together (hopefully) or separately (if necessary), we can thin forests near our towns first and then start working on other areas where we’d like to see forests stay alive for years to come," Squires said. "The issue isn’t who is right or wrong," he added. "The issue is maintaining living, breathing forests and safe communities we all care so much about.”
Tim Buckley is a freelance writer living in Oregon and a regular contributor to Timber/West. He’s written about federal lands issues since working for the BLM in Alaska in the early 1970s.
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