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The Nation

Intense Logging Blamed for Wildfires

Forests: Legislators in the West say timber laws led to slew of big burns, but statistics show heavy cutting in '70s, '80s may have caused epidemic.


Will Hart, a spokesman for Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), who is sponsoring the administration's initiative, also said it is important to give forest managers flexibility and not tie their hands with tree size restrictions. He added that Craig's legislation includes language that "not less than 10 of the largest trees per acre" be maintained in areas thinned under the fuel reduction projects.

That would still allow extensive cutting, as the administration's own briefing papers cite forest density of about 500 trees or more per acre in some fire-prone areas.

Critics contend the administration proposal is so broad it would let the Forest Service cut just about anything, big or little, on forested land at high fire risk.

"It virtually encourages the removal of large trees," said Jude McCartin, spokeswoman for Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who is promoting an alternative proposal requiring that most fire hazard work be done within a half-mile of communities or in key municipal watersheds.


Product of Tree Harvests

In addition to fire suppression, a number of researchers say the increased wildfire risk is the product of commercial timber harvests that promoted changes in the composition of Western forests, leaving them more vulnerable to wildfire.

In taking out the biggest, most valuable trees, they maintain, logging in national forests removed those most resistant to fire.

Clear-cutting, widely used by the Forest Service before the late 1980s, created large, sunny openings that subsequently filled with thick new growth. Logged areas were often reseeded to create tree plantations, again promoting heavy young growth.

Timber harvesting also created massive amounts of slash debris--the limbs and treetops stripped from logs before they are loaded onto trucks. If left in the woods to dry, the slash can act like huge piles of kindling, ready to feed any blaze that runs through the woods.

"Almost all of the large damaging wild land fires in American history up until recent decades were associated with logging and land clearing," said Stephen J. Pyne, one of the nation's preeminent fire historians.

"The reason is you leave huge amounts of fuel behind."

University of Washington forest ecologist James K. Agee, the author of various journal articles on fire, said there are good and bad ways to thin.

"On public lands, in particular, we ought to be focusing on leaving the largest trees and thinning out the smaller ones and making sure the slash that is created on those operations is cleaned up.

"It really boils down to the Forest Service doing a good job of this in a sustainable fashion," he said.

"They know how to do it. The question is, given the chance, will they?"

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