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The thin red line: Debate rages over best way to curb forest fires

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 12, 2003


From Lew Nash's small Cessna, circling above the steep Klamath Mountains, the evidence of last year's massive "Biscuit Fire" stretches to the horizon. Fields of gray ash. Blackened tree trunks and downed logs. Roads scraped into the dry, granitic soil where firefighters did their best to control the 500,000-acre blaze, sometimes setting backfires to prevent the forest-fed holocaust from racing up and over ridgelines.

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In the end, the fire burned for four months, eventually crossing from Oregon into California. It took 23 fire management teams, 7,000 firefighters, $153 million, and, ultimately, the December rains, to extinguish the blaze completely.

But the story of the "Biscuit Fire," and the many other conflagrations that burned more than 7 million acres in the West last summer, is far from over. As another fire season unfolds in a region already afflicted by serious drought in 11 states, debates over how best to prepare for and reduce the impact of such fires rages around the nation.

Significant issues are at stake:

• Whether "salvage logging" and "thinning" reduce the risk of catastrophic fires.

• Whether it's more important to manage what the timber industry calls "decadent forests" in remote areas, or concentrate on fire-prevention measures in areas where civilization and wilderness meet.

• Whether Uncle Sam should budget for these measures or rely on timber revenues to pay for them.

• How this all fits into overall forest policy on the 453 million acres administered by the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

It's more than just partisan politics, and it's more nuanced than the longstanding fight between environmentalists and industrial foresters. These questions could affect millions of Westerners living in or near potential fire zones, and it's already getting personal: The State Farm insurance company recently told customers in wildfire-prone areas of six Western states that they have two years to remove excess brush and trees from around their properties or risk losing coverage.

And a bill passed recently by the US House (in line with President Bush's "healthy forests initiative") would increase brush thinning and tree cutting on some 20 million acres of federal land. It also mandates a time limit on legal appeals of logging plans.

The purpose here is to reduce the number of delaying lawsuits brought by environmental groups. US Forest Service chief Dale Bosworth regularly complains of such "analysis paralysis," even though the General Accounting Office recently reported that 95 percent of timber projects proceed in timely fashion.

This legislation not only bothers tree-huggers, but also worries civil rights groups - including the NAACP, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the National Organization for Women. These groups warn that the bill "could severely impact the ability of our federal courts to issue timely decisions" in other matters.

Environmentalists say the bill, expected to be taken up by the Senate next month, opens the door to widespread logging of the bigger, older trees coveted by timber companies.

"Scarce federal funding should be directed around homes and communities where it is needed most, instead of giving a green light to timber companies to log our national forests," says Robert Vandermark of the National Environmental Trust.

Supporters deny the charge.

"The bill has nothing to do with old growth or mature trees: It is a forest-health bill," says Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, an industry group in Portland, Ore. "There is not one provision that would allow for the logging of old growth or mature trees that weren't a significant risk to key watersheds, endangered species habitat, or rural communities."

And in the end, say Bush administration officials, the legislation supplements efforts already under way to reduce the buildup of brush and fallen trees that could suddenly be ignited by the spark of a careless match or dry summer lightening.