Forest for the fire 

WGA Forest Health Summit marks fork in the road

The Western Governors’ Association Forest Health Summit arrives in Missoula smack in the middle of what’s turning out to be a pivotal 60 days for the future of America’s national forests.

If you haven’t noticed, the Bush administration and GOP-controlled Congress have been on a roll, using the fear of fire to forward an agenda of limiting citizen involvement and undermining environmental laws in order to increase logging on America’s national forests.

On May 20, the U.S. House passed the “Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003,” a misguided fire bill that does nothing to help protect rural homeowners. Instead the bill limits citizen participation, undermines environmental laws, interferes with the U.S. judicial system and authorizes an additional $125 million in subsidies to log millions of acres of national forest lands. Similar legislation comes before the Senate in July and, if passed, Bush’s signature is guaranteed.

On May 30, the Bush administration put new regulations in place allowing an unlimited number of 1,000-acre logging projects across the national forest landscape with absolutely no environmental analysis and limited public involvement. Incredibly, we are told to believe that logging a forest the size of 930 football fields has “no significant environmental impact”!

The Bush administration announced on June 5 that it will scrap the current Sierra Nevada Framework—adopted in 2001 following eight years of study—in favor of a plan that will triple logging levels on 11 national forests in California. The Bush plan opens spotted owl reserves to logging and will allow the cutting of trees nearly eight feet in circumference under the guise of “fuel reduction”.

The standard line from the Bush camp—which has been repeated ad nauseam—is that the Forest Service suffers from “analysis paralysis,” and efforts to protect homes and reduce fuels are being stalled by appeals and lawsuits. Problem is, the facts don’t back Bush up.

A May 2003 General Accounting Office report found that of 762 Forest Service fuel reduction projects, 95 percent were ready for implementation within the standard 90-day review period, and 97 percent proceeded without litigation. These numbers hardly support claims of “analysis paralysis.”

But the truth is a mere inconvenience to the Bush camp. These masters of manipulation—enabled by the mainstream media—realize that if you repeat a myth often enough, it will soon become “fact.”

Another prime example of this phenomenon at work is the claim that more commercial logging on national forests will protect our homes and reduce fire risk.

Never mind the fact that 92 percent of the fire-prone land presenting a risk to communities is non-federal land, or that Forest Service experts have found that a home’s ability to survive a fire depends on its location, condition and surroundings within 200 feet of the structure. In short, experts tell us that wildfire protection begins at home, not with more logging on our national forests.

Also, let’s not forget a recent Department of Agriculture report that found, “The removal of large, merchantable trees from forests does not reduce fire risk and may, in fact, increase such risk.” The report warned that the Forest Service’s fire policy “should not rely on commercial logging or new road building to reduce fire risks.”

Given the reality of the current situation, it will be surreal to watch Gov. Martz—the self-proclaimed lapdog of industry—using her three speeches at the WGA Summit to paint a glowing picture of cooperation and consensus.

This is especially true considering that some members of the WGA’s stakeholder group believe that sweeping changes to federal laws and agency regulations—supported by Martz and the Bush administration—don’t even adhere to the core principles of the WGA’s own 10-Year Comprehensive Wildfire Strategy.

Many of us are also a bit surprised that Wednesday’s WGA-sponsored field trip will head north to the Seeley-Swan instead of south to the Bitterroot. After all, why wouldn’t Martz and Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth want to show off the Forest Service’s model burned area recovery plan—a living example of Bush’s “Healthy Forest Initiative”?

You may recall that in January 2002, Chief Bosworth justified the need to circumvent the public appeal process on the Bitterroot by stating, “The most important thing to me is getting on with the restoration work. There’s lots of other work we wanted to do—roads we wanted to obliterate, watershed work, reforestation. The idea of the whole project was fire restoration.”

Well, the sad fact is that one year into this “recovery” plan, 10,489 acres have been logged, while less than 3 percent of the watershed and road restoration work has been completed, and $18.3 million once earmarked for restoration has been taken away. Could this explain why Martz wants to steer the field trip as far from the Bitterroot as possible?

While the environmental community—and most sensible Americans—are rightfully opposed to the approach favored by the Bush camp, we continue to call for a science-based approach to protecting homes from fire and restoring our national forests.

Remember, focusing on the house and its immediate surroundings within 200 feet is the most effective way to protect homes. Given that only 12 communities out of 22,000 at risk from wildfire are recognized by the National Fire Protection Association as “firewise,” we think it’s criminal to ignore rural homeowners while handing over an additional $125 million for more logging in the backcountry.

When it comes to restoring our national forests, we support putting local people to work undoing the damage caused by a century of logging and 400,000 miles of roads. In fact, over the past two years the environmental community has worked together with restoration practitioners to draft a set of Restoration Principles to guide the implementation of sound restoration policies and projects on national forests.

Ask yourself: should we listen to those who are using the fear of fire to limit citizen participation, undermine environmental laws and increase logging on our national forests? Or should we move forward with a common- sense, science-based approach that will protect homes from fire and put local people to work restoring our national forests? The choice is ours.

Matthew Koehler is a coordinator with the Missoula-based Native Forest Network. To learn more about the NFN, visit www.nativeforest.org.

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