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August 30, 2000
WASHINGTON -- The nation has watched while lives have been lost, homes destroyed and millions of acres of our national forests charred this summer.
You may think that dry weather is the cause, but think again. You can thank the federal government for decades of fire suppression and anti-logging polices that promoted raging fires in forests of crowded, dry and dead trees.
The people who live in and around the forests are paying the highest price for this mismanagement. President Clinton announced that he would help make amends by doling out $ 150 million in emergency assistance. Unfortunately, money won't bring back what was lost to the flames, nor will it prevent history from repeating itself.
It's time that Congress and the president devise a new strategy for managing our forests. If they investigated, they would learn that historically, forests were more open and healthier. For example, before federal involvement 20 to 55 ponderosa pines grew per acre of forest. But after decades of federal "management," we now often have 300 to 900 trees in that same amount of space!
It's not surprising that more than 60 percent of federal forests are now either unhealthy or deteriorating, according to a U.S. Forest Service report. One reason pre-federalized forests were healthier was frequent fire.
For example, ponderosa pine forests burned every five to 15 years in blazes ignited by lightning strikes or by Native Americans. Natives used fires extensively and changed the face of North America by modifying the landscape to favor certain plants and animals.
These frequent fires burned at low intensities that cleared out the brush without harming large trees. Then entered federal management. Not only did federal agencies not start fires as Native Americans did, they worked hard to quickly stamp out all of Mother Nature's fires.
A hundred years later we have forests full of dead and dying trees, creating unhealthy tinderbox conditions. The accumulated wood fuels hotter fires and serves as a ladder, allowing flames to climb into the tree canopy and destroy larger trees.
Now Clinton and Congress have three options. They could continue with the existing policy - but that only promises future devastation followed by emergency aid. Not exactly a good option.
Others suggest that forest managers massively increase the number of "prescribed burns," where fires are intentionally lit in hopes of reducing underbrush and thinning the forest. But prescribed burns alone are unlikely to fix the problem. They are expensive, release massive amounts of air pollution and can be performed only on a small scale under the right conditions.
Also, "controlled fires" sometimes get out of control, particularly when there is so much fuel in the forest. For example, the feds burned 400 homes near Los Alamos, N.M., this spring in a "controlled burn" that escaped.
The best option, recommended by forestry experts, involves mechanically thinning forests - cutting out underbrush and some trees to restore forests to their previous state of 20 to 55 trees per acre. Selective logging does not release massive amounts of air pollution and it generates revenue to help defray the costs of forest management.
Recognizing deteriorating forest health, some environmentalists support selective logging. In an Associated Press interview, Rex Wahl, the executive director of Forest Guardians, said, "It's clear we'll have to take mechanical steps like thinning before we can use fire to restore these forests to a more natural regime."
The many fires this year and the unhealthy, tinderbox conditions on remaining federal lands should be a cue to restore the ecological health of forests. But it's not clear if federal forest managers have heard the message.
The Clinton administration is pushing to create new National Monuments and a roadless plan for federal forests, both of which will make fire management more difficult because they create de facto wilderness areas where needed thinning may not be allowed.
While in Idaho, the president joked that when he first arrived in Washington, "There was a lot of underbrush that needed cutting there." If the president will not heed the advice of experts and environmentalists for the forests, perhaps he will heed his own.
Daniel R. Simmons is an environmental policy analyst and Ali Freeman is a research associate, both with the Competitive Enterprise Institute.