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Getting Burned by the Politics of Fire

A forest researcher's speech is hailed by environmentalists, much to his chagrin. Reaction shows how explosive the issue is.

May 25, 2003|John MacDonald | Associated Press Writer

MISSOULA, Mont. — For 20 years, Forest Service researcher Jack Cohen avoided getting dragged into the politically sticky world of forest management.

While bureaucrats, loggers and environmentalists argued over how best to manage forests and fires, Cohen stuck to his research into fire behavior, pleased if it added some objectivity to the debate, but resigned to the likelihood that it would not.

"My philosophy has always been that of a scientist," said Cohen, a veteran fire researcher at the Forest Service's Fire Sciences Laboratory in Missoula. "I say, 'This is my study. What somebody does with my research in forest management, well, that's up to them.' "

But four years ago, Cohen found his scientific objectivity questioned because of what he thought was a fairly innocuous speech in San Diego about one of his studies.

Environmental groups began citing their interpretation of his work in their arguments against logging in national forests. In no time, word came through the grapevine that Forest Service bosses were not happy.

"All of a sudden, I was labeled an ally of the environmental organizations and a loose cannon within my own agency," he said. "I can tell you, those are tough labels to shed."

What happened to Cohen, fire researchers and fire historians say, shows just how political fire has become and how scientists who study it sometimes get caught in the middle.

"The good news, in a way, is that fire has become enough of a problem in the West that it's now a greater part of the political picture," said Stephen Pyne, historian at Arizona State University and author of books on fire in the West. "The bad news is ... fire is still being hijacked as an excuse to pursue other agendas."

And those agendas are broad. Some groups have used the fear of wild-land fire to push for restrictions in national forests, arguing that man's interference only increases the chances of fire. Others use the fear of fire to suggest that more areas be opened to logging to remove years of accumulated trees and brush, lessening chances of the next fire being catastrophic. Both cite research by scientists like Cohen in their arguments.

"We are asked to apply our knowledge and skills about fire research on a pretty regular basis," said Colin Hardy, project leader for fire behavior at the Missoula lab, part of the Forest Service's research division. "Unfortunately, the people asking the questions often are coming from a very political agenda.... That always puts us in an awkward position."

For Cohen, that began in 1999 when he presented findings of a study he was conducting in Canada about how forest fires destroy homes. What he found is most houses are destroyed by small, errant embers, not the heat of towering flames as the main blaze sweeps through. He noted that the chances of a home surviving a fire depend greatly on its condition -- whether the house can resist a bombardment of embers -- and on the flammability of adjacent property.

Within a week of his speech, Cohen learned that environmental groups were citing his study in their arguments against logging. They suggested that Cohen had concluded there was no reason to log in national forests at all, since no amount of logging or thinning there would determine whether a house survived a fire.

Cohen was caught off-guard by that interpretation. "There are many reasons, many good reasons, for doing some [thinning] projects in the wild lands," he said. "It's just that saving homes isn't one of them."

Tom Platt, executive director of the Ecology Center, also based in Missoula, defends how environmental groups interpreted Cohen's research.

"The Bush administration and the Forest Service have taken fire as an opportunity to move forward with their logging agenda," he said. "We are simply countering their contention that if you log our national forests, you will protect homes."

The administration's "Healthy Forests" initiative, released last summer, argues that "fuels treatment" -- including logging -- is vital to prevent the "catastrophic fires" that destroy national forests and homes.

Critics characterize the plan as an effort to scare the public into supporting more logging to reduce fire danger.

"It's just a Trojan horse that is ultimately designed to increase [logging] in national forests," Platt said.

Dale N. Bosworth, chief of the Forest Service, defends the initiative. Thinning to reduce fuels is a prudent step in preventing future fires, he said. "The fact is, we've got a big problem with fuel buildup in our forests," he said. "My view, and I've said it before, is that we need to be able to get on the ground to do the work. I view the Healthy Forests initiative as a way to do that."

Hardy and Kevin Ryan, the fire-effects project leader at the Fire Sciences Lab, say research has shown that selective thinning can reduce the severity of fires. But they say the benefits can be overstated.

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