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California and the West

Experts Seek Costly Thinning of Forests

Environment: They warn that decades of fire suppression have let so much fuel accumulate, the West faces catastrophe.


DARBY, Mont. — Facing a swath of wildfires that on Wednesday threatened to meet on the Idaho-Montana border, ecologists are becoming increasingly concerned that massive blazes could sweep through most of the fuel-choked forests of the interior West in the coming decades.

"Because we've been controlling fires for so long, we are pushing them outside the range where they might have been manageable," said Ann Bartuska, director of forest management for the U.S. Forest Service. "We need to take action."

The Forest Service this week plans to deliver to Congress a $12-billion proposal to clean dense, fire-prone underbrush out of 40 million acres of forests from Montana to California.

The fire prevention effort--which would be one of the biggest ever undertaken in the national forest system--would amount to a tenfold increase in current spending. Without it, specialists say, ferocious blazes like those that already have plundered millions of acres will probably burn through the majority of the forested wilderness west of the Rockies. The damage would persist for generations.

The recommendation is for preventive burns and extensive tree thinning through 3 million acres a year--far in excess of current logging levels. It reflects a growing realization of the potentially devastating consequences of the fierce fires now burning on wild land in 12 states. Far from the kind of beneficent blazes that nourish soil and replenish trees, these are so massive and hot that it could take decades or longer for forests to recover, ecologists say.

"Without the funds to address the underlying causes . . . these fires are just going to continue and just get worse--until essentially there's not much left," said Leon Neuenschwander, professor of forest ecology at the University of Idaho. "Our tax dollars will be spent trying to contain these fires, while all the firemen can really do is basically pray for rain."

"It is apparent that time is running out for a strategy to successfully avert high-cost, high-loss consequences," said the report signed this week by Forest Service chief Mike Dombeck for delivery to Congress.

Montana Governor Declares Disaster

With 1.1 million acres burning in 86 major fires on wild land, Montana Gov. Marc Racicot issued a disaster declaration Wednesday. Firefighters, meanwhile, prepared for a new set of lightning storms that could link the worst of the wildfires into a single inferno in Idaho and Montana.

A total of 800 homes in Montana's Bitterroot Valley south of Darby were under evacuation orders as a thick haze of smoke hampered efforts to spot new fires and fight existing ones. In Idaho, authorities closed the 2.4-million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness--a popular rafting destination--as firefighters attacked blazes on the southern bank of the Salmon River.

The Forest Service recommendation to spend $825 million a year to help avert wildfires promises to escalate the political war already brewing over the Clinton administration's timber policy. Over the past decade, there has been a 74% reduction in harvests.

At a public meeting with Forest Service officials last week in Darby, talk quickly moved from firefighting tactics to blame. The logging cutbacks, residents said, are what caused the dense fuel loads now aflame in the forests.

"We have some elections coming, and we can take back the West!" shouted Suzy Foss, an Arabian horse breeder from Hamilton, Mont. "We have sat on our butts enjoying the beauty, and let the environmentalists take over this country!"

"This fire did not start a week ago. It started 15 years ago, when we stopped selective logging," said Guy Copenhaber, a Darby resident. "We had an economy then. We don't have one now."

Racicot, a Republican, has accused the administration of ignoring warnings that under-managed forests were creating a wild land fire hazard. GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush said last week that current policies restricting logging have "made the forests much more dangerous."

"The Forest Service has known for some time that . . . in a hot, dry year [forests] were destined for this kind of catastrophic fire. And yet we have an administration in Washington, D.C., that is hellbent on locking these lands up to any kind of management," said Cary Hegreberg of the Montana Wood Products Assn., a logging industry group.

Environmental groups, however, have countered that past logging in federal forests has left them even more vulnerable to fire by removing shade cover and moisture.

"The frustration is that our congressional delegation in Idaho is just using this to bash a lame-duck presidency. . . . It's pure politics, and it purely confuses the issue," said Dallas Gudgell of the Idaho Conservation League. "Past management practices are not stopping these fires, either. I'm not seeing the fires run up against these clear cuts and stop."

GAO Reported Critical Buildup of Fuel

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