The Bush administration's timber-cutting prescription for the West's wildfire epidemic runs counter to the record of the last half century, when large forest fires erupted on the heels of the heaviest logging ever conducted by the U.S. Forest Service.
In an initiative that could come up for a Senate vote any day, the administration is seeking to waive environmental reviews to speed up tree-cutting on up to 10 million acres of federal land at high risk of wildfire.
While administration officials say the work is urgently needed to thin out forests jammed with fire-prone, dense growth, the Forest Service's own statistics show that the modern era of big burns began not in the 1990s, during a period of declining logging, but in the 1980s, when trucks groaning with public timber headed for the mills.
In 1950, when about 3 billion board-feet were logged, a quarter of a million acres of federal forests burned. Nearly six times that amount went up in flames in 1988, when the harvest had climbed to nearly 12 billion board-feet.
In California, two forests now considered especially vulnerable to fire by the Forest Service--Lassen and Plumas northeast of Sacramento--also were among the state's most heavily logged during the 1970s and '80s.
"There's no reduction in wildfire from past logging. We haven't seen it," said Leon Neuenschwander, a fire ecologist who taught for 25 years at the University of Idaho.
Many experts say that by removing the largest and most fire-resistant trees and replacing them with dense young growth, conventional logging and tree planting practices helped create the conditions that stoke wildfires.
"Partial cutting done historically typically aggravated the fire hazard and made things worse when fire came along," said C. Phillip Weatherspoon, an emeritus research forester with the Forest Service who has written extensively on fire.
That is not to say that he and Neuenschwander believe chainsaws should be banished from the woods. They don't.
But "cutting is not always the same by a long shot," Weatherspoon said.
He is one of many experts who advocate the removal of brush and dense thickets of small trees as well as the use of deliberately set, controlled fires to lessen the risks of major conflagrations in western wild lands.
Cutting the Old Growth
Administration officials speak of the same need. But they also argue that the taxpayer expense of such work could be offset if contractors were allowed to take larger, marketable trees.
The Bush proposal targets 10 million acres at high risk of fire, including land that is near communities, that is in municipal watersheds, or that is full of trees affected by disease or insects.
It contains no limits on the size of trees that can be cut and waives environmental reviews and appeals that have been used by conservationists to halt the logging of large old-growth trees.
If the timber-cutting projects are challenged in court, the proposal bars judges from temporarily stopping the work while a case is under review.
At the same time, in separate action in California, Forest Service officials are reviewing new environmental protections in the Sierra Nevada, contending the logging limits, adopted in the waning days of the Clinton administration, hamper their ability to lessen the fire hazard.
The latest proposals are unfolding during a season of mammoth wildfires for which some Western lawmakers and politicians have angrily blamed environmentalists and timber-harvest limits.
"The policies that are coming from the East Coast--that are coming from the environmentalists that say we don't need to log, we don't need to thin our forests--are absolutely ridiculous," Arizona Gov. Jane Dee Hull said after nearly half a million acres of her state were scorched.
"Nobody on the East Coast knows how to manage these fires, and I for one have had it."
Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, a former timber industry lobbyist and the architect of the administration proposal, said he was not blaming environmentalists for the fire problem, nor did he believe it had been created by logging.
"I don't think it's any more accurate to say that our current fire situation is caused by the sharp logging reduction in the Clinton administration than it is to say commercial logging is the primary reason for the wildfire situation."
The scope of the summer's raging wildfires, he said, are a consequence of drought, expanding communities at the forest edge that drain firefighting resources from the backcountry, and nearly a century of fire suppression--the policy of putting out fires as quickly as possible.
Rey insisted that the current proposals are aimed at reducing the fire hazard, not clearing the way for massive logging. But he said he didn't believe Congress should be telling forest managers what size trees to cut.