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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

"Millions of acres of public lands are affected with insect damage. Invasive plants crowd out native plants. Tree stands, after years of poor management, are so thick that they cannot grow to natural size," Interior Secretary Gale Norton said last week. "We need to reverse these trends."

"Poor management," in this case, may be a reference to decades of the US Forest Service's "Smokey the Bear" fire suppression policy, the goal of which was to put out every fire by 10 a.m. the next day. Now, most forest ecologists agree, fire needs to be seen as a tool for regeneration.

Signs from Bald Mountain

Looking down from the Cessna at Bald Mountain in southern Oregon's Kalmiopsis Wilderness, forest activist Lou Gold points out the broad areas of green among the charred remains of trees. The fire swept through these areas, burning the brush and "woody debris" of a natural forest while leaving the bigger old-growth trees that had evolved with thicker, fire-resistant bark. Nearby lie severely charred sections of forest that have been salvaged, logged, and replanted after another devastating fire in 1987.

"The lesson is essentially that the fire spreads most quickly and most violently through the young forest, whether it's recovering after a previous fire or a managed plantation system," says Mr. Gold. "The overall fire problem is that we have managed the system into younger and younger forests, and the younger it is the more fire-prone it is," Gold adds. "You can replant, but in another 15 years you'll have a young, dense forest waiting to burn again. Basically, it's a monocrop like a field of corn."

Dave Calahan is a retired Medford, Ore., firefighter who now tends 80 acres of forest in the Applegate Valley. Standing on a ridge between Sterling Creek and Spencer Gulch in the middle of what was the 2,800-acre Squire Peak Fire, Mr. Calahan offers opinions on fire's vital function in this part of the West. "When it blew up that day, thinned or not, it toasted," he recalls. "If Mother Nature wants to go on a rampage, it doesn't matter whether it's been thinned or not." "We need to de-villainize fire," he says. "Fire is not a villain unless it's about to burn down your house."

Only you can prevent...

Following this philosophy, many people with homes in forested areas on the outskirts of Western communities are working hard to prevent this from happening. Like Perry Prince in nearby Ashland, Ore., they're taking advantage of government-subsidized programs to clear out undergrowth that built up during years of fire suppression. Mr. Prince's 1.3 wooded acres includes his house and another building for his Chinese antique import business. He says a fire would spell disaster.

But with help from the Lomakatsi Restoration Project, a nonprofit ecoforestry group, Prince removed brush, woody debris, a few smaller trees. Now, the land he shares with the occasional bear or cougar is far healthier than it was a year ago, although he's had to give up a bit of privacy. "After years and years of putting it off, I just said enough is enough," says Prince. "I can see my neighbors now, but if there was a fire our house would probably be saved."

It's also more than a one-time effort. Students from a local wilderness charter school have "adopted" Prince's land to help remove Scotch Broom and other fire-prone invasive species.

In the long run, says Timothy Ingalsbee, director of the Western Fire Ecology Center in Eugene, Ore., all of this requires "permanent engagement with the landscape." "We really have to start with community protection," says Dr. Ingalsbee. "And that's going to affect the way we live."

Shifting toll of burned acres

The federal costs of fighting wildfires set a record last year.

Year/ Million acres/ Costs (million) 2002 6.9 $1,661

2001 3.6 918

2000 8.4 1,362

1999 5.7 524

1998 2.3 329

1997 3.7 256

1996 6.7 679

1995 2.3 340

1994 4.7 845

Source: National Interagency Fire Center

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