Chopping Down the Forest Won't Save It
By Chad Hanson
The New York Times
PASADENA, Calif. -- Yesterday's release of the National Park Service
plan for a ''prescribed burn'' in New Mexico -- the fire that went
awry and destroyed homes and businesses in Los Alamos -- has added
to calls for a re-evaluation of the service's fire policies. But
some of these exhortations, coming from the timber industry's supporters
in Congress, look more like opportunism than considered criticism
of what went wrong in this fire.
For those who want more commercial logging of America's national
forests, the Los Alamos tragedy plays into a stance that is already
well rehearsed: that more logging can ''reduce the risk of catastrophic
wildfires.'' It is an argument that doesn't hold up.
While Senator Larry Craig, an Idaho Republican, and his allies in
the timber industry talk about ''thinning underbrush,'' the real
interest of the industry is in gaining access to the last remaining
mature forests on federal lands.
In April 1999, the General Accounting Office issued a report that
raised serious questions about the use of timber sales as a tool
of fire management. It noted that ''most of the trees that need to
be removed to reduce accumulated fuels are small in diameter'' --
the very trees that have ''little or no commercial value.''
As it offers timber for sale to loggers, the Forest Service tends
to ''focus on areas with high-value commercial timber rather than
on areas with high fire hazards,'' the report said. Its sales include
''more large, commercially valuable trees'' than are necessary to
reduce the so-called accumulated fuels (in other words, the trees
that are most likely to burn in a forest fire).
The Forest Service typically keeps about 90 percent of the revenue
from these timber sales. The money has helped finance both the agency's
budget and its preparations for more commercial logging. Meanwhile,
the logging industry gets rich on cheap timber, and pro-timber members
of Congress receive millions in campaign contributions as an incentive
to keep this system going. Taxpayers take an enormous loss.
The truth is that timber sales are causing catastrophic wildfires
on national forests , not alleviating them. The Sierra Nevada Ecosystem
Project Report, issued in 1996 by the federal government, found that
''timber harvest, through its effects on forest structure, local
microclimate and fuel accumulation, has increased fire severity more
than any other recent human activity.'' The
Reason goes back to the same conflict that the G.A.O. found: loggers
want the big trees, not the little ones that act as fuel in forest
After a ''thinning'' timber sale, a forest has far fewer of the
large trees, which are naturally fire-resistant because of their
thick bark; indeed, many of these trees are centuries old and have
already survived many fires. Without them, there is less shade. The
forest is drier and hotter, making the remaining, smaller trees more
susceptible to burning. After logging, forests also have accumulations
of flammable debris known as ''slash piles'' -- unsalable branches
and limbs left by logging crews.
In 1994, Jack Ward Thomas, then chief of the Forest Service, said
in congressional testimony that fires don't hurt the forest itself.
Even fires that kill many trees ''in an area from which you do not
expect to extract timber'' might be ''perfectly acceptable,'' he
said. He gave the example of Yellowstone National Park. ''It burns
up; it burns hot, and the system that's associated with it
Comes back,'' he said.
After several decades of federal management that suppressed fires
with timber sales in mind -- some forests on federal lands have actually
become more flammable, since they have been deprived of fire's important
natural role of clearing brush under the big trees and returning
nutrients to the soil.
Controlled burning has been used successfully for over a decade
to reintroduce fire into forest ecosystems. The National Park Service
reports that fewer than 1 percent of controlled burns result in ''escapes''
-- fires that cross their predesigned boundaries. Even then, people
and property are almost never hurt.
This does not excuse any carelessness, of course, that may have
led to the New Mexico fire, which clearly did escape, and tragically
so. But it would be an even bigger tragedy if we allowed the timber
industry's allies in Congress to continue destroying our national
forests under the self-serving guise of fire management. Ultimately,
our public forests will be safe only when Congress passes legislation
to end the timber sales within them.