Rekindling our relationship with fire

When the scent of fir smoke seasoned the air this month in the northern California valley where I live, my first worry was that it told of local flames. As a member of our town's volunteer fire company, I feared that fire duty would commandeer my afternoon – or my summer – for as long as the blaze lasted.

But no. The smoke had drifted from Oregon's half-million-acre "Biscuit Fire," more than a hundred miles away. Although that distant blaze reduced visibility here to a couple of miles, it made one thing crystal clear: We must correct our relationship with fire before it takes a run at any more neighborhoods. Fortunately, rural innovators have figured out how to do that without sacrificing the mature forests that protect our wildlife and drinking water.

Wood smoke is the perfume of the West, part of the natural cycle of growth, death, and renewal. In open forests, fire is apt to creep along the ground rather than leaping from treetop to treetop in a grand conflagration.

But decades of fire suppression and clear-cutting have left forests choked with underbrush and dead limbs, setting the stage for fiery infernos. Most scientists and public-land managers agree that the solution is to remove the smaller trees.

However, those trees have the least commercial value. During these lean times, the tough question is how to fund the labor-intensive work of thinning the forest. The most promising answers are found not in the proposals offered last week by President Bush, who would enlist timber companies to clear underbrush and in exchange, allow them to harvest larger, profitable trees. The answers lie in rural areas, where residents know the woods and the wood business.

In the hamlet of Hayfork, Calif., just 90 miles south of the Biscuit Fire, Lynn Jungwirth leads a group that has taken on the first part of this challenge: weeding out the small trees at least cost. Her crew developed a miniature yarder, a machine to pull logs out of the forest. Because the yarder is compact, it can be moved quickly from place to place, so it can collect small logs cost-effectively. Those logs are then fed into the maw of another machine, called an Economizer, which spits out several pieces of lumber. Other logs are peeled for use as utility poles.

But in a remote area like Hayfork, that's just half the battle. The cost of trucking makes their raw lumber uncompetitive in the marketplace. So Lynn's husband, Jim Jungwirth, started a wood-products company that turns the boards into valuable finished products, such as supermarket display racks, cider presses, and cafe furniture. The slow-growing fir and pine from the forest understory also make beautiful flooring, nearly as durable as hardwood.

In pilot projects, Lynn Jungwirth found that the value of tiny trees – under 8 inches in diameter – would pay for thinning in flat country. Throw in a few medium-sized trees – no more than 16 inches through at the stump – and the timber would cover the cost of thinning even on steep ground.

Ironically, Forest Service red tape and budget restrictions have made it difficult for Jungwirth to expand her work on public land. Nevertheless, the word is out: Across much of the landscape, thinning can pay for itself without touching the prime timber. Other experiments in Idaho and Oregon have reached similar conclusions.

In contrast, much of what President Bush proposed last week would simply reward his timber-industry supporters under the guise of fire-proofing the forest. Cutting large mature trees to pay for thinning is like selling off the backyard to pay for hiring a gardner. With the consolidation in the timber industry over the past decade, it is likely to be the large businesses that profit most from federal timber. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the timber industry ponied up nearly $2 million for Republicans in the 2000 election cycle, outdoing their generosity to Democrats by a margin of more than 4 to 1.

Bush's implication that his plan would spare firefighters from danger is equally disingenuous. Predicating thinning projects on the harvest of mature timber is bound to provoke controversy and postpone any reduction in the risk of wildfire.

As a firefighter, let me tell you, Mr. President, the best time to have done this work was five years ago, and the next best time is tomorrow. Tying it to the political football of federal timber sales is unfair to those of us whose lives and homes are on the line when we smell smoke in the air.

• Seth Zuckerman covers the ecology and economy of the West for Ecotrust's Tidepool.org news service.

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