Smoke and mirrors 

Exploiting fear of fire in the name of logging

Over the past 15 years, pro-timber interests have led a successful effort to convert public concern over catastrophic wildfire into significant policy changes in national forest management.

The era of political fire management began in Yellowstone in 1988. This mother of all political fires combined a potent mix of ingredients. A national icon, Yellowstone is dominated by vast stands of ready-to-burn lodgepole pine, and 1988 was an extraordinarily dry and windy summer. Modern media technology allowed daily satellite feeds, and the images of flaming forests set off a frenzy.

The wall of flames provided the perfect backdrop for energetic pronouncements of forest illness and failed management policies. Senators, congressmen, governors, the secretary of the interior, presidential candidates, even President Reagan took turns in the media bonanza. Shrill demands for action prompted an unprecedented influx of resources. Over 300 fire engines, hundreds of helicopters, retardant bombers and bulldozers, more than 25,000 firefighters––and a whopping $120 million price tag.

Yellowstone also revealed the limits of firefighting technology under extreme burning conditions––the fires didn’t go out until autumn snow doused the embers––and raised concern over the massive costs in relation to questionable effectiveness.

The nation’s “natural fire policy”—allowing fires in remote wilderness areas and national parks to burn under natural conditions—was nearly scrapped. Ever since, fire managers have become shy of risking what’s known in the business as “career-ending events.”

Yellowstone ushered in the era of fire as a hot-button political issue, guaranteeing national media coverage and federal cash. The pattern repeats itself each active burning season, and the ever-increasing annual expenses reached $1.2 billion nationally in 2002.

We have an innate fear of wildfire, and that fear is a driving force in the forest management debate. Dramatic imagery, combined with carefully crafted rhetoric, results in policies which might otherwise prove too controversial. No politician wants to be viewed as unsympathetic to protection of life and property, anymore than they want to look soft on homeland defense. In a panic-driven, knee-jerk response, large sums are appropriated without regard to cost-effectiveness.

For example, the “Salvage Logging Rider” passed by Congress and signed during the early days of the Clinton administration, used the fallout from Yellowstone as a crowbar to leverage the passage of legislation allowing huge salvage logging sales on national forests to be exempted from environmental laws, and shielding those sales from legal challenge. Described by the Washington Post as “…arguably the worst piece of public lands legislation ever,” conservationists called it “logging without laws.”

During large fires in southwest Idaho in 1994, a Congressional field hearing featuring Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas called for large increases in logging in response to the fire crisis. Afterwards, the Boise National Forest cut more than 280 million board feet in a massive salvage logging program. The term “forest health” became a mainstay in the pro-logging vocabulary.

During the Montana fires of 2000, Montana Gov. Marc Racicot used the national media to criticize President Clinton for not doing more logging on national forests, and thereby contributing to a forest health crisis. Afterwards, politicians intervened to force through a salvage logging program on the Bitterroot National Forest which circumvented the usual citizen appeals process.

In 2002, President Bush used Oregon’s Biscuit Fire as the backdrop for the national press conference announcement of his “Healthy Forests Initiative.”

In the present debate, both sides agree that the proliferation of homesites throughout the rural West is a recipe for disaster involving the loss of lives and homes within the wildland-urban interface. But deciding where and when to cut trees remains controversial. Conservationists point to research from Forest Service fire scientist Jack Cohen indicating that a zone within 200 feet of homes, mostly on private lands, is the highest priority area in which thinning can be effective.

The Bush plan and its congressional counterpart call for the “thinning” of millions of acres of National Forest lands throughout “high-risk” areas of the West, often miles away from communities or homesites. Environmental appeals and laws would either be streamlined or eliminated altogether in order to expedite action in the face of “emergency conditions.”

The Healthy Forest Restoration Act is sponsored by Rep. Scott McGinnis (R-Colo.), chairman of the House Forest Subcommittee. In an interview with the Independent, Blair Jones, press secretary for Rep. McGinnis, said the primary purpose of the bill is “to reduce the risk of wildfires to our communities, watersheds and the environment.

“In 2002, 7.1 million acres were destroyed. The bill allows the Forest Service to use expedited procedures to reduce hazardous fuel loads to protect communities, watersheds, and habitat for threatened and endangered species. It allows the Forest Service to spend more time and money on the ground versus spending it on the lengthy appeals and judicial review process. We want to take the power out of D.C. and put it in the hands of the forest experts and let them define defensible space. We can’t draw an arbitrary line in the forest,” Blair says.

But “The McGinnis bill doesn’t solve the problem, and in many cases will make it worse with all the logging slash they’ll leave across the landscape,” says Jake Kreilick, in Washington, D.C. with the National Forest Protection Alliance. “Logging is not the cure for these forest ills.”

The McGinnis bill has drawn criticism from a host of conservationists, scientists and fire fighters critical of its provisions to limit appeals and judicial review of timber sales, and of its broad application. Opponents claim the legislation is meant to convert concern for homes and communities into a commercial logging program on national forests.

Asked to respond, Blair suggests that conservationists “pose that question to the residents of Glenwood Springs [Colo.], where fire roared through the city and caused the evacuation of almost the entire city.”

Fire has long been viewed as a contentious foe to be conquered and subdued, rather than a natural event to be tolerated and respected. While the debate and responses continue to evolve, fire remains an issue in which fear-driven decision-making often obscures the path from the problem to the solution.

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