Create a forest-tending corps

This summer's disastrous forest fires in the West have left behind millions of darkened acres. But they've also sparked some useful ideas about how to avoid such disasters in the future.

Some of those ideas are included in a fire-prevention plan drawn up by the Clinton administration. It may not solve all the problems confronting the fire-prone Western forests - recurrent drought conditions, for instance.

But it's a definite step toward better forest management, and ought to receive the requested $2.8 billion in funding from Congress.

At the heart of this year's severe fire season lay decades of misguided policies that allowed a tremendous buildup of brush and small-tree growth on the forest floor. By striving to put out all fires, in the best tradition of Smokey the Bear, the forests' governmental managers set the stage for really big fires.

The administration plan calls for more "prescribed" burns to help clear the forest of its smaller plants. That's an indispensable step, despite the controversy whipped up by the purposely set fire that got out of control in the area near Los Alamos, N.M., earlier this year. That sad incident underscored the need for more thorough training for those who do the work of prescribed burning.

But some thickly forested areas, particularly those close to communities and dwellings, are too flammable to chance a controlled burn. What's needed first, there, is thinning by work crews. That's another key part of the plan - and it carries the seeds of possible controversy and stalling.

Who's to do the thinning?

Administration officials, such as Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, argue for locally recruited teams that go specifically after the small growth that serves as tinder for forest fires. They foresee some 8,000 federally paid jobs being created, along the lines of the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps.

But the logging industry would like to do the work, too, and it has many supporters in Congress.

Perhaps the industry can have a role, but it will have to come with the proviso that this is not an invitation to cut at will, taking fire-resistant older trees along with scrubbier growth.

When administration officials met this week with Western governors to discuss the plan, they agreed to shelve the issue of logging. The governors, mostly Republicans who have often criticized Clinton policies, concurred that the overriding concern is forest health. They welcomed the prospect of mobilizing local communities to take part in planning the fire-prevention action and in the forest thinning itself.

That hopeful note implies that the lessons of the summer of 2000 have been learned.

Let's hope it's sustained and the forest plan is approved before Congress adjourns.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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