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Ways and Means

Fire As a Smoke Screen

Bush proposes logging the forests to save them

By Carl Pope

Joe Dorst laid the tinder, Smokey Bear placed the kindling, and the timber industry lit the match. Captain Dorst of the U.S. Cavalry was effectively the first supervisor of Yosemite National Park. He was reprimanded by the secretary of the Interior for failing to stop an 1892 blaze in the park’s Grant Grove. Chagrined, Dorst ordered his soldiers to put down, and prevent, all fires. According to fire historian Stephen J. Pyne, Dorst’s military template—fire as the enemy, prompt and vigorous suppression as the strategy—became that by which "all wild and forested lands would be managed" by the federal government.

Starting in 1945, a cartoon bear helped transform the Forest Service’s policy of "every fire down by 10 a.m." into a national creed of total prevention. But stopping all fires left forests choked with the brush and downed limbs that had previously been regularly cleared out by low-intensity burns. In addition, decades of ruthless commercial logging eliminated all but 5 percent of the oldest, thick-bark, fire-resistant trees. Replacing them were highly flammable small, even-age trees, which a cigarette or lightning strike could turn into an inferno capable of burning even the hardiest old growth.

Convinced that all forest fires should and would be prevented, Americans built thousands of homes in the midst of this tinderbox. Finally, years of drought caused the moisture content in green trees to drop far below normal, in some states lower even than kiln-dried lumber. Predictably, fire exploded all across the West this past summer.

The timber establishment and allied politicians quickly found a scapegoat: environmentalists. Speaking in front of the remains of a still-smoldering wildfire in Oregon, President George W. Bush said, "There’s just too many lawsuits, just endless litigation," as he introduced a plan that would preclude the public from challenging cuts done under the guise of "fuel reduction." Earlier, Arizona governor Jane Hull (R) had charged that opposition by environmental groups to fire-prevention efforts was behind the nearly half-million-acre Rodeo-Chediski fire. In fact it was Hull’s own administration that had opposed controlled burns in the fire area, prompting even the conservative Arizona Republic to accuse her of "burning tree-huggers at the stake."

Arizona senator Jon Kyl (R) and Colorado representative Scott McInnis (R) joined Hull’s chorus, alleging that the Forest Service had failed to avert the risks because of "analysis paralysis" resulting from environmental challenges to fire-prevention proposals. The General Accounting Office pricked this hot-air balloon by showing that of 1,671 fuel-reduction projects, only 20 had been appealed, and none had been held up by litigation. The Forest Service riposted, claiming that of 326 appealable "projects," nearly half had been appealed. It turned out, however, that these projects were mainly commercial timber sales, many of which had been appealed precisely because they would have increased fire risk.

But reducing that risk is apparently a low priority for the Forest Service, which keeps finding other uses for money appropriated for protecting forests. In Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest, for example, the Agriculture Department’s inspector general found that forest managers had diverted $1.8 million in restoration funds to start new commercial timber sales; similar diversions cropped up in other locations as well.

Let’s set the record straight: The Sierra Club and other environmental groups have for years advocated protecting old growth and other large, fire-resistant trees while allowing low-intensity fires to burn, supplementing them when necessary with intentional, controlled burns. We support thinning of small trees, and we endorse the National Fire Plan, a federal/state effort that funds controlled burns and encourages the removal of brush and other fire hazards near communities and homes. We realize that it won’t be easy to return natural fire patterns to the West. "Putting fire back into the landscape is not the simple reverse of taking it out," writes Pyne.

"It is more like reintroducing a lost species. . . . The fires we introduce deliberately must be set where we have readied the landscape for them, by clearing thickets and brush, for example, and restoring some natural grasses."

The undertaking, Pyne cautions, would be on par with Superfund: "It would be a huge, messy project that nobody wants to deal with. We’re decades past a simple solution. Now we have to accept what’s out there."

But while the mission is difficult, we do know what to do. Simple steps can make a huge difference. Vern Vinson’s Colorado home stands today because he raked up the pine needles and dried grass around it, pruned low branches nearby, and put a layer of gravel around his house. Like his neighbors, he was evacuated when the Hayman fire swept through last July. When he returned, his house was unscathed, although the rest of the neighborhood lay in cinders.

Controlled burns also work. Frank Johnson was forced to evacuate by the same fire, and he, too, was able to return home. Why? Because the National Fire Plan had funded an 8,000-acre controlled burn nearby the previous September. "At the time, we didn’t think much of it," he said. "It wasn’t very pleasant and nobody was excited about it." Until, that is, the fire ran out of fuel on the ridge just above Johnson’s home.

We can save lives and property by devoting serious resources to fireproofing homes and clearing hazardous fuel buildups nearby. Or we could follow Smokey Bear’s hopeless crusade to prevent forest fires, this time by removing all the trees. We could riddle our last ancient forests with logging roads and clearcuts, setting the stage for tomorrow’s conflagrations, or we can restore natural fires to natural forests. You can’t prevent forest fires, it turns out; but we can save our forests, and our homes too.


Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at carl.pope@sierraclub.org.

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