Remember the Sula 

The backbone of President Bush’s Healthy Forest Initiative is the idea that uncontrollable wildfires can be prevented through thinning. The concept—which is championed not only by Bush, but by a host of elected officials and forest administrators—is that eliminating forest fuels deep in the wilderness will prevent massive wildfires from reaching populated areas.

On May 20, as the president told reporters on the White House’s South Lawn that thinning through logging was “common sense,” Gov. Judy Martz stood behind him in support. Across the mall, Rep. Denny Rehberg worked to convince his peers to vote to increase logging on the 20 million acres of national forest the initiative identified as high risk—which bill was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives on May 21. Even Steve Forbes put his weight behind the push in a Forbes op-ed.

But while Bush, Martz and other supporters tout the plan as the best preventative measure, a lone voice in the woods of the Bitterroot believes he’s found a local example of why the initiative won’t work.

Friends of the Bitterroot’s Larry Campbell has spent hours walking Western Montana’s woods and poring over maps of the areas that burned during Montana’s 2000 fire season. Particularly, he’s interested in the fate of the Sula State Forest—23,000-acres hidden deep in the Bitterroot and flanked by national forest land—during the 2000 fires.

Because it’s more difficult to appeal sales on state lands than it is on federal lands, conservation groups often channel their energies to federal sales. Campbell says this exposed the Sula to heavier logging than the surrounding national forest. According to the Bush/Martz logic, the logging on the Sula would have insulated it from major fire damage during the 2000 fires, says Campbell. But not so.

“When the fire came through the Sula, it burned more thoroughly and with greater severity than in the surrounding Bitterroot National Forest,” he says. “It’s a prime example of not being able to fireproof a forest by logging it.”

Campbell is upset that Gov. Martz, and Gov. Racicot before her, have helped push fire protection via thinning wilderness all the way to the national level.

“They haven’t done their homework. They haven’t looked at their own state forest practices and what happened with the Sula.”

Campbell hopes that Martz and others will take the time during the Western Governors’ Association Forest Health Summit to take a walk around in the Sula’s burned area. There, he says, they’ll be able to see the future of their healthy forests first hand.

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