A New Beginning for our Forests

A New Beginning for our Forests

Smith Op-Ed in The San Diego Union-Tribune
December 08, 2003

The devastating <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Yellowstone National Park fires of 1988 first began to focus national attention on the condition of our nation's forests. The highly controversial policy of letting nature-caused fires burn uncontrolled (called "natural regulation"), touted by one of Yellowstone's top ecologists, quickly caused debate in the U.S. Congress. Eight Congresses have since convened, and hearings have occupied ever-growing time in the Senate and the House. Forestry professionals, ecologists, biologists and environmentalists in government, academia and non-governmental organizations have presented volumes of studies, data and photos. It has become clear to almost all parties that there is a crisis in the national forests.A century of federal and state total suppression of all fires, propelled by Smokey the Bear's constant harangues, has created historically unnatural forests, dense with hazardous accumulations of dead and dying trees, duff, pinecones and fallen or wind-toppled trees and near-impenetrable thickets of smaller trees crowding the forest floor under the mature forest. Prolonged droughts across much of the West, together with the dense, overcrowded young trees, have stressed the forests and weakened their resistance to disease, insects and beetles, which have reached epidemic levels in many national forests.From convincing documentation of this ticking time bomb condition of the forests has come the call for major efforts to reduce these fuel loads and restore the forests to a healthy condition.And that is where the catch has been. When will healthy forests be restored, how will it be done, and who will do it?Many in the government forest and fire agencies, forestry schools and associations (as well as timber associations) and a growing number of forest ecologists and fire ecologists have called for massive thinning of the forests to restore their health. Some of the leading forest ecologists say landscape- scale thinning of wild lands covering hundreds of thousands of acres is necessary to return the forests to pre-settlement conditions, when regular low- intensity fires would creep along the surface, promoting natural, healthy, and open, park-like forests.Liberal environmental groups argue that this is just a Bush- promoted effort to subsidize “Big Timber,” and all that is necessary is to thin narrow buffers around forest communities. Greenpeace has argued that a 200-foot-wide buffer will suffice. And all argue that wild lands and road less areas must remain inviolate.This sounds plausible to urbanites in the East and Midwest: Remove the fuels and people and communities are fireproof. The Greens fail to mention that fires commonly spot ahead of the flame front considerable distances, jumping roads, rivers, interstates and firebreaks. And large conflagrations fueled by kiln-dry fuels and forests, high temperature, low humidity and strong winds create literal firestorms, with flames and balls of fire, clouds of red- hot embers and burning branches carried ahead -- sometimes for miles.The Forest Guardians have admitted that while some forest thinning is appropriate, timber companies must not be permitted to benefit. Liberal environmentalists and many in Congress seem more concerned about the possibility of someone making a profit than in restoring forest health. They worry that timber companies will be allowed to harvest some marketable trees to pay for removing the unmarketable brush, tiny-diameter trees, and decayed and beetle-riddled trees.But if we can't expect private companies, loggers or unionized workers to do it for free, who will? It will be a staggeringly long, expensive effort to reduce the hazardous biomass accumulations. And the Forest Guardians and allied Green groups have not volunteered to undertake an altruistic campaign.Over the past five years, more than 28 million acres have burned - - an area larger than the Commonwealth of Virginia. California, Oregon, Arizona and Colorado have seen their worst recorded fires. And it's not just trees that have been destroyed; it's also wildlife and habitat, endangered species and critical habitat and watersheds, along with homes, communities and human lives.On May 20, the House voted 256-170 for a comprehensive Healthy Forests Restoration Act. On Oct. 30, the Senate finally followed suit 80-14, driven by the mounting toll of deaths and destruction in California. But winter rains and snow doused the fires and the enthusiasm of the Senate's liberal Democrats to bring the bills to conference. Despite intense lobbying by the Sierra Club and other Greens, however, Senate Democrats finally agreed to conference. Both houses quickly agreed on a conference report, and on Nov. 21, the House and the Senate passed the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003.Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein jointly celebrated the bill's passage, proof that the destruction in Southern California was not for naught. President Bush will shortly sign it, giving a long-overdue Christmas present to America's forests, wildlife and people -- planting the seeds that will help to end the era of burning our nation's forests and begin a new era of healthy stewardship.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />