Exploiting Federal Lands
The myth of 'thinning' forests
by Chad Hanson
Monday, August 26, 2002
Printed in the San Francisco Chronicle.
pro-logging Western politicians passed the "salvage logging
rider" in 1995, many environmental advocates vowed that it would
never be allowed to happen again. The rider suspended all federal
environmental laws to allow unrestrained logging of healthy, green
old-growth forests on federal lands under the guise of "forest
health" and "fire risk reduction." This, despite
overwhelming scientific evidence that logging increases severe
Now it's happening again.
Last week, President Bush announced the "Healthy Forests Initiative," a
proposal that would curtail environmental reviews and legal challenges
to logging plans and accelerate so-called mechanical thinning (another
way of saying logging) on 190 million acres of federal land. The
initiative would set aside money made from the timber operations
to pay for forest-fire prevention programs, which could cost as
much as $4 billion annually.
Bush's proposal comes at a time when
the logging industry's foot
soldiers in Congress, led by the notoriously anti-environmental
Sen. Larry Craig, R- Idaho, have now threatened a new appropriations "rider" that
would suspend environmental laws supposedly to expedite "fuels
reduction" projects on national forests.
As one of the West's
key lawmakers, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has paid lip service
to reducing flammable undergrowth from federal
forests, but in fact has promoted programs that increase removal
of mature trees. "Thinning is probably the greatest source of
apprehension among environmentalists," she stated last week. "But
I strongly believe we can find an accommodation to do this." Feinstein
failed to mention, however, that projects to reduce flammable undergrowth
are already exempt under current environmental laws, and environmentalists
consistently support such projects. Conservationists only challenge
inappropriate projects that focus on the removal of medium and large
If the logging industry gets its way, mature trees from 12
to 30 inches in diameter will be felled at a shocking rate with
laws or public involvement. Disturbingly, the government's own
science warns that such an approach will increase, not decrease,
because removal of these larger trees reduces forest canopy cover,
creating hotter, drier conditions. Essentially, logging companies
and their political apologists seek to remove the larger, more
fire-resistant trees and leave in their wake the smaller, more combustible
and "slash debris" -- limbs and twigs from felled trees,
which are costly to remove.
Bush, Craig, Feinstein et al. imply
that the sale of medium and large trees could pay for reduction
of underbrush. But they all fail
to mention that U.S. Forest Service documents show that logging
costs about as much as brush reduction, and is sometimes more expensive.
addition, because logging reduces shade cover and increases sunlight
exposure, it speeds the growth of easily ignited weeds and shrubs.
As a result, every few years this brush must be reduced at significant
expense. Typically, though, the Forest Service simply ignores the
problem. It was for this very reason that a federal judge ruled
last year that Feinstein's Quincy Library Group logging plan was
increasing the likelihood of severe fires.
What is needed is an
increase in funding for brush reduction within and adjacent to
residential communities, as the federal government's
own National Fire Plan recommends. The Forest Service's own research
shows that if simple steps are taken to reduce the flammability
of homes and their immediate surroundings within 200 feet, they will
be protected even from severe fires.
Amazingly, however, the press
releases issued by Feinstein, Craig and company urge that scarce
federal funds should instead be spent
on logging projects in remote areas. Logging companies, of course,
have no interest in clearing underbrush near houses. They want
valuable large trees -- period.
The great tragedy here is that if
the timber industry gets its way, the only projects that will be
insulated and expedited are those
that remove large trees and increase fire risk. Funds will be diverted
from brush reduction near homes to large commercial logging projects.
Instead of thinning underbrush, these projects deceptively use
the term "thinning" for commercial logging of medium and
large trees. Homes will burn while logging companies get richer.
of logging on federal lands have not reduced severe fires;
they have, in fact, created them. It's time to stop logging on
our national forests.
Chad Hanson is the executive director of the
John Muir Project (www.johnmuirproject.org) and is a national director
of the Sierra Club. He lives in Cedar
Ridge (Nevada County) near the Tahoe National Forest and can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.