Seasonal rains and blessedly cooler weather have pretty much brought an end to this year's scorching fire season across the West.
But the heat and smoke of the political battle over how to deal with millions of acres of fire-prone national forest lingers like a smoldering stump. And the way it's being argued reflects the Bush administration's general approach to environmental protection. From global warming to endangered species to clean air and water, there's a tendency to favor economic solutions to problems that aren't easily measured in dollars and cents.
The president and his supporters in Congress want to reduce the wildfire danger by making it easier for loggers to thin trees and brush. To do this, they argue, regulations need to be streamlined, lengthy lawsuits shortened, and the ability of citizens to appeal tree cutting ought to be limited.
Those who stand to benefit directly from Mr. Bush's Healthy Forests Initiative favor this approach. W. Henson Moore, head of the American Forest & Paper Association, an industry trade group, calls the plan "a balanced, scientific, common-sense approach to protecting our federal lands."
Others are not so sure.
"One person's streamlining is another person's gutting," says Robert Vandermark of the National Environmental Trust in Washington.
It's not just the usual suspects tree-huggers versus the timber industry involved in the debate.
Before this summer's blazes, Western governors (Republicans as well as Democrats) had put together a 10-year plan to reduce fire danger by thinning out forests. The administration had signed on to that plan, but now wants to go further insisting that fire-reduction logging has to be economically profitable, which means cutting some big trees as well as the fire-prone thicket of smaller trees and undergrowth. And it wants exemptions to some of the nation's premier environmental laws to do so.
This has left some Western governors grumbling.
"Capitalizing on the legitimate concern over wildfires to justify stripping away federal environmental laws is not, in the end, going to improve overall forest health," Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber (D) said last week. "Why? Because it will repolarize the debate and it will increase the likelihood that absolutely nothing is going to happen on this issue this year in Congress."
Other critics remain skeptical that a pay-for-itself forest thinning program is possible. Even when clea-cutting larger, more valuable trees in national forests was routine, Uncle Sam consistently lost money on timber sales to private companies.
To reduce fire danger on the 10 million acres of federal land most at risk, experts say, will take a tidier approach one that more closely mimics the natural fires that periodically thin out vegetation between larger, fire-resistant trees. Until now, that typically has not been the case.
In a recent letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Interior Secretary Gale Norton, a group of wildland firefighters pointed out that the flammable "slash" left after logging small trees, brush, and invasive weeds is rarely cleaned up in timely fashion. "This greatly increases the fire risks and fuel hazards," the firefighters wrote. "Also, logging large shade-producing trees tends to make the ground surface hotter, drier, and windier."
One option may be to use thinned-out "biomass" (shrubs, small trees, and the waste from logging) as fuel to run nearby power plants.
"It should be apparent that utilizing excess forest fuels to burn in state-of-the-art power facilities is a far better alternative than allowing wildfires or prescribed fires to consume this fuel and pollute the air," asserts the American Forest Resource Council, which represents wood products companies in 12 Western states.
At the same time, advocates of using forest biomass to produce energy acknowledge that it's virtually impossible to quantify the benefits in economic terms. "It is very difficult to assign market values to forest fuel reduction when the benefits are clean air, watersheds, wildlife habitat, and other environmental benefits," the AFRC reports exactly the same point environmentalists often make about such "green" energy sources as wind and solar.
For now, the question of how to change federal forest policy remains stalled in the US Senate.
Meanwhile, the administration's tendency to emphasize economic issues when dealing with the environment has also been called into question by the death of tens of thousands of salmon in the Klamath River since Sept. 24.
Biologists say a major cause is the decision to favor farmers over endangered wildlife in the Klamath Basin of northern California and southern Oregon. While other parts of the local economy rely on water here (most notably fishermen), farmers protested the loudest during last year's drought. When they illegally opened irrigation head gates, politicians in this heavily Republican area rushed to the scene and the Bush administration allocated more water for crops.
Diverting that water for irrigation, biologists say, resulted in the river water being shallower and warmer, and therefore more likely to induce diseases that are fatal to the Chinook salmon.