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Bush's Forest Fire Plan Does Little to Stop Blazes
(Oregonian, Sept. 4, 2001)

By Chad Hanson

The timber industry and its political apologists have praised the Bush
Administration's recently-released 10-year Strategic Plan for managing
wildland fires. They applaud Bush's proposal to invite more timber
corporations on to America's national forests, supposedly to reduce
" hazardous fuels", such as underbrush, shrubs, and saplings.

There are several fundamental problems with this picture, however.
First, while it is true that underbrush should be reduced in some
forested areas, the reality is that logging corporations have no interest
in saplings and shrubs. Such material is too small and has no commercial value. The timber industry only wants one thing from our national forests: mature trees.

The problem is that commercial "thinning" of mature trees not only
degrades critical habitat, but also substantially increases the incidence
of severe wildland fires, according to scientists. Commercial thinning
reduces forest canopy cover, eliminating the moist, cool, shaded
conditions associated with mature forests. The result is hotter, drier
conditions on the forest floor. In addition, logging leaves behind
extremely flammable "slash debris" consisting of dry twigs and branches.

The Forest Service's own National Fire Plan, issued in September of 2000, warns that the agency's wildland fire policy should "not rely on
commercial logging or new road building to reduce fire risks" because
" the removal of large, merchantable trees from forests does not reduce
fire risk and may, in fact, increase such risk." This scientific plan
also found that "logging and clearcutting can cause rapid regeneration of
shrubs and trees that can create highly flammable fuel conditions within
a few years of cutting."

Even the Forest Service's chief fire specialist, Denny Truesdale,
repeatedly stated in an August 10, 2000 interview on the C-SPAN program Washington Journal that the material that needs to be reduced to prevent severe fires is undergrowth less than three or four inches in diameter--not mature trees. In fact, the Forest Service's BEHAVE model, which measures potential for fire spread, doesn't even consider material larger than 3 inches in diameter.

On a recent trip to northern Arizona, Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth
pointed to the Fort Valley timber sale on the Coconino National Forest in northern Arizona as the example to emulate. The project was designed by Dr. Wally Covington of Northern Arizona University's Forestry School. However, Dr. Covington's project did not merely reduce some undergrowth, it totally eliminated the entire forest understory.

What's worse, the Fort Valley timber sale, like all commercial logging
projects, focused on the removal of mature trees, not undergrowth. In
several areas, most of the largest trees--many over four or five feet in
circumference and over 100 years old--were removed. Stands that were
previously suitable habitat for goshawks now have far too little forest
canopy cover to support these imperiled species.

Finally, the Bush Strategic Plan encourages commercial thinning of mature trees deep in the national forests ostensibly to protect homes on private lands from fires. Yet the Forest Service's own scientific expert on this issue, Jack Cohen, has published recent studies which conclude that the only way to effectively protect homes is to reduce the flammability of the home itself and its immediate surroundings within at most 40 meters.

The truth is that the Bush Strategic Plan is a Trojan horse which will
lead to increased logging of healthy, green, mature trees on federal
public lands. Indeed it has already been documented that dozens of such timber sales, focusing on the removal of mature and old growth trees, are being funded right now on public lands with National Fire Plan monies appropriated last fall strictly for "underbrush" reduction.

It is probably no accident that the Bush Strategic Plan focuses on
commercial logging on national forests, despite the fact that 80% of the
total area burned is on nonfederal lands comprised mostly of chaparral
and grassland.

Ultimately, the Bush Administration's desire to repay its many timber
industry campaign contributors is far outweighed by the right of
Americans to have a responsible approach to wildland fire management. If the commercial logging program were ended on our national forests, as HR 1494 would do, the Administration and the Forest Service would be able to focus on real fire management, rather than waste taxpayer money on big timber sales that destroy wildlife habitat and cause severe fires.

Chad Hanson is the executive director of the John Muir Project, and is a
national director of the Sierra Club.