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After Smoke Clears, Plan for Forest Renewal

September 18, 2000|BRUCE BABBITT | Bruce Babbitt is the U.S. secretary of the Interior

Earlier this month, as 30,000 firefighters began to demobilize, President Clinton proposed a new national fire management program. Congress should act on this proposal before adjourning in October.

The president's program includes recovery assistance for forest communities and funds to rehabilitate and replant fire-scarred landscapes. It will assist state programs to upgrade community fire departments, improve building codes and expand fire safety education. The president also proposes a major new initiative to restore western forests to ecological health, making them more resistant to large, destructive fires.

Most of our western forests evolved with frequent, low-intensity ground fires that thinned out the underbrush, consumed ground fuel and maintained a healthy forest structure. After 100 years of intense fire suppression, these forests, once open and sunlit, are now dense with clusters of small doghair pine and white fir. Firefighters call these small trees "gasoline rags" because of the explosive way they carry ground fires up into uncontrollable crown fires involving the taller trees.

To restore forest health and reduce the risk of large, uncontrollable fires, we must take steps to return to the natural cycle of low-intensity ground fires. The dilemma is that many forests are now so dangerously explosive that in some areas, particularly in the suburban fringes, we must begin by thinning the forest before applying prescribed fire.

The Interior and Agriculture departments have sponsored successful demonstration projects using this mix of thinning and prescribed fire to reduce fire risk in Flagstaff and in communities along the Rocky Mountain front. It is now time to scale up. President Clinton has asked Congress to appropriate nearly $1.6 billion to accelerate fire preparedness and fuel reduction projects throughout the West.

Some critics are taking aim at this initiative because they are unfamiliar with the recent advances in fire science and forestry that underlie the proposal. Most of the criticism is coming from the timber industry, which wants to renew the old battle about whether to have more or less logging on public lands. Logging and thinning, however, are two very different concepts. Logging is about taking more big, old-growth trees that are not fire hazards and that are already badly depleted in many forests. Thinning is about weeding out the unnatural accumulations of small-diameter trees that create explosive fire conditions.

The timber companies are stepping forward, proposing to do the thinning in the traditional manner of logging: The Forest Service advertises a bid, the winning company pays the bid price and goes to work. But the timber companies won't bid to cut anything unless they can cut enough big trees to meet their profit goals. Environmentalists fear that the Forest Service would eventually give in to timber company demands, and they may well be right.

Why? Because under an old law called Knutsen-Vandenberg, the Forest Service budget is financed by receipts from timber contracts. In this sweetheart system, there's no money for the budget unless the logging contracts are on terms acceptable to the timber companies. This incentive-to-log system ought to be abolished. Meanwhile, there is no place for Knutsen-Vandenberg timber contracts in forest restoration programs.

Besides, there is a better way. The work of thinning shouldn't be done by either timber companies or by the federal government. It is best done by community agencies, creating jobs in the woods for local residents on the old Civilian Conservation Corps model. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and I will be meeting with western governors and local communities in coming weeks to formulate guidelines for such a program.

President Clinton has offered to work with Congress to legislate a bipartisan program in the few remaining weeks of the session. If we get embroiled in a debate about logging, there will be a legislative meltdown like the "salvage logging" debates of years past. But if we can stick to the real issue, thinning for restoration, the fire summer of 2000 will be a new beginning for our western forests.

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