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A Voracious Forest Plan

September 19, 2002

We have to cut the nation's forests to save them. That seems to be the Bush administration's rationale for its misnamed Healthy Forests Initiative, now before the Senate. The measure grants the U.S. Forest Service and private loggers virtual free rein to saw down trees on 10 million acres--no environmental review needed. It also lets them bulldoze roads into areas long set aside for possible designation as wilderness.

All this would be done in the name of fire prevention, ostensibly spurred by the reaction to sweeping forest fires in the West this year. But the Bush measure, sponsored by Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), would not improve the health of the forests or protect against fires. Forestry experts say that, historically, the worst fires usually burned land that had been logged or cleared.

The legislation's cynical joke is a requirement that the loggers leave standing at least 10 of the largest trees on any given acre. Some fire-prone timber stands have as many as 500 large trees per acre, and even the Forest Service's own standard for one tract in Colorado was to leave 50 to 75 large trees. Besides, big trees aren't the big problem. Little trees and dry underbrush are the kindling that feeds conflagrations.

Such fuel has accumulated over a century of misguided policy that called for immediate suppression of any blaze. The problem will take years to correct, no matter how many towering trees the loggers are allowed to cut. Meanwhile, drought and the sprawl of development into forested areas are the main causes of the increased devastation from this year's fires.

Ignoring all that, federal officials say they must allow timber companies to log big trees to raise the money needed to finance thinning. This too is almost laughable considering that the Forest Service has a history of losing money on timber sales.

Instead, Congress should provide money to do what's really needed. Historically, natural fires kept forests open and healthy. Federal officials increasingly are setting fires to clear remote forests, which is risky in areas adjacent to human habitation. So the forests need to be thinned. But this can be done without gutting them.

The Senate should defeat the Bush-Craig plan. A proposal by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) offers a more reasonable and effective approach.

Existing laws let the Forest Service do its job, provided it files environmental impact reports and stays clear of protected areas. In fact, President Bush can thin as many trees as he wants right now. He just can't take a saw to the nation's environmental protections in the process.

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