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A Burning Issue: Helping Loggers, Hurting Forests

July 15, 2002|CHAD HANSON | Chad Hanson is the executive director of the John Muir Project and a national director of the Sierra Club. E-mail: chadhanson@juno. com.

Scores of scientists and the federal government's own national fire plan have concluded that the removal of mature trees from forests increases the severity of forest fires. Why then would the Bush administration use the threat of fires to try to increase logging of mature and old-growth trees in our national forests?

That is clearly the administration's intention, as outlined in two recent memos on revising the Northwest Forest Plan and the "Sierra Nevada Framework" plan to allow logging companies increased access to ancient forests on public lands. The move is being led by Mark Rey, a former timber industry lobbyist and a President Bush appointee who oversees the Forest Service.

In the Sierra Nevada, the administration intends to "modify" the current Sierra framework plan to increase the size of trees that could be removed, which would allow widespread logging of old-growth trees in national forests. The administration also has indicated its intentions to eliminate the current requirement to maintain small stands of remnant ancient forest and to reduce the existing standards for maintaining forest canopy cover. This would greatly undercut the Sierra framework, which limits logging of mature trees in national forests in the Sierra Nevada. The framework was the result of several years of planning and public participation during the Clinton administration.

Bush administration officials imply that this logging is needed to protect homes from forest fires. Yet the Forest Service's own scientific reports show that the best way to protect rural homes from fire is to reduce the flammability of the home itself and its surroundings within 100 feet. Wood shingles should be replaced with fire-resistant roofing, and brush around the home should be cleared. These steps protect homes even from severe fires.

As scientists point out, commercial logging actually increases fire severity by removing large, fire- resistant trees and leaving behind very small trees and flammable "slash debris"--branches, twigs and needles from felled trees. The removal of mature trees also decreases the forest canopy, creating hotter, drier conditions on the ground. The additional sun exposure encourages the growth of flammable brush and weeds.

Reduction of flammable underbrush can reduce fire severity, and environmental groups have encouraged such projects. However, the Bush administration has grossly misused the funds that Congress appropriated for brush reduction near homes. In Sierra Nevada national forests last year, more than 90% of these funds were instead earmarked for preparation of large timber sales focused on the removal of mature and old-growth trees miles from the nearest town.

The Bush administration's potentially dangerous fire management policies demonstrate the need for Congress to pass legislation to abolish commercial logging in national forests and to redirect logging expenditures into brush reduction and home protection.

Until that happens, many politicians will continue to place the economic interests of their timber industry campaign contributors ahead of public safety and ecology.

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