As firefighters from as far away as New Zealand work to dampen one of the worst wildfire seasons in US history, Democrats and Republicans in Congress and state capitols are joining forces to make the West less flammable.
Once the smoke clears, which may not be until seasonal rains return in the fall, this could be the means for negotiating a truce in the West's "timber wars." For more than a decade, loggers in hard hats have clashed against environmentalists willing to chain themselves to ancient trees. The current crisis is also opening up the possibility for innovative ways of making forest thinning (not to be confused with massive clear-cuts) commercially viable. Even some conservation groups now favor this, despite their traditional opposition to anything involving a chain saw.
President Bush this week visits the "Biscuit Fire," now spread over nearly 450,000 acres in Oregon and California, highlighting an issue that is as politically charged as it's ever been.
"My state is burning up right now," says Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon. "It's absolutely critical that we, on a bipartisan basis, move aggressively with a fuels-reduction program to reduce fires."
Senator Wyden has joined with Sen. Larry Craig (R) of Idaho to sponsor a bill that would protect older trees while making it easier for timber companies to cut younger trees in federal forests. It would do that by speeding up the appeals process that has effectively blocked many sales.
This is in line with what other lawmakers want as well. "Without active management, we will be asking ourselves in a few short years where our forests have gone," a bipartisan group of senators warned recently. "We must deal with this problem and take an aggressive proactive approach to fire and forest management."
Western governors from liberal Democrat John Kitzhaber of Oregon to conservative Republican Judy Martz of Montana are also eager to get beyond the political and legal delays symbolized by such incendiary buzzwords as "salvage logging."
This turn of events is putting Democrats at odds with many of their traditional supporters in the environmental community. But there's also a sense that the important thing is forest protection and fire prevention not simply scoring political points.
"The bottom line has to be solution-driven rather than blame-driven," says Lou Gold, a longtime forest activist who lives near the massive fire in southern Oregon that has been burning for more than a month and is only 35 percent contained.
If anything, the science of forest management is even more complicated than its politics.
Across much of the West, the natural fires that historically swept the forest floor while leaving the larger trees have been replaced by a century of fire suppression, industrial logging, and tree plantations. In the process, downed limbs and other natural woody debris have built to unnatural levels. High heat, low humidity, winds, and lightning strikes complete a situation that this year has burned nearly 6 million acres (more than twice the yearly average) and will likely cost upwards of $1.5 billion to fight.
While biologists stress the importance of healthy mixed-age forests, they also acknowledge that mechanical manipulation some logging may be necessary to replace natural fires no longer tolerated by a public that wants to live near and play in the woods.
"Done correctly, thinning younger stands can produce logs while at the same time enhancing ecological and conservation values by reducing susceptibility to fire and other disturbances...." seven prominent scientists from the Pacific Northwest wrote last year to federal officials.
Two major questions need to be resolved: What constitutes an old-growth forest with commercial as well as biological value? And how should the cost of reducing the risk of potentially catastrophic fires be met?
The timber industry and its political supporters say enough timber needs to be cut (typically larger, older trees) to at least cover the cost of thinning and cleaning up fire-prone forests.
Others argue that this makes no more sense than charging individuals whose homes are saved from destruction by city firefighters. "This coupling of public safety and timber harvests is absurd," says Mr. Gold, the Oregon activist. He adds, "Risk reduction on public land and financial assistance to private landowners could be achieved for a lot less than we now have to spend putting out the Biscuit Fire."
Part of the answer may be new sawmills specifically designed to handle logs as small as five inches in diameter the kinds of trees that scientists say should be thinned to preserve bigger, older trees while reducing fire risks.
The Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership (academic, environmental, business, and government organizations in Arizona) recently reported that there would be a market for products from smaller logs, including laminated beams and flooring. But to make it happen, the group said, would take government support. "We have clearly identified a new market niche in the Southwest, and it is entirely driven by federal action," says Catherine Mater, the study's lead author.
The end result could be a win-win situation for business and the environment. "The potential to create a new economic sector based entirely on restoration activities is high," says Brad Ack of the Grand Canyon Trust, a conservation group in Flagstaff, Ariz. "This is doing good and doing well at the same time."