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Poor Forest Health Poses Great Environmental Threat to Nation
Debate Sizzles Over Forest Health

By Chaille Brindley
Date Posted: 9/2/2003



With this year’s wildfire season already well underway, the debate over forest health has started to sizzle in Congress. Last year, Republicans and Democrats reached a compromise on wildfire prevention but ran out of time to enact it before the end of the Congressional session. With more and more people living in fire prone areas and the amount of fires increasing over recent years, wildfire and forest health has become an issue that Washington can no longer ignore.

Fire activity this year has been heavy in the Southwest, moderate in southern California and the Pacific Northwest, and light throughout the rest of the United States according to the National Interagency Fire Center. As of mid July, more than 1,074,471 acres had burned or were on fire. While this may not be the worst fire season on record, the situation continues to get worse each year as forest health on public lands deteriorates.


Two Sides To Every Issue

There are two fundamentally different positions when it comes to the current forest health crisis. Republicans and some conservative Democrats are calling for environmental procedures to be streamlined and more local control given to regional forest managers. They want the Forest Service to treat entire forests not just areas near at-risk watersheds and communities.

            Liberals and preservationists groups blame commercial logging and poor Forest Service management for the problem. Preservationists contend that the forest health crisis can be dealt with best by only treating areas around communities or watersheds. All sides appear to agree that treating areas around communities and sensitive watersheds makes sense and should be the top targets. Others want to extend treatment deep into the forests where many of the major wildfires start.

Green groups claim that commercial interests are trying to use the forest health issue as a smokescreen to revive widespread logging on public forests. But is logging on national forests a bad thing? Keep in mind that up until the 1980s and the Spotted Owl controversy, national forests (which are different from national parks) were producing a significant amount of timber, especially in the West Coast where the government owns large tracts of land. National forests were originally established for multiple use including logging, recreation and wildlife habitat.

Preservationists accuse Republicans of stripping away environmental safeguards while not providing enough funding to really solve the problem. Washington Democrat Jay Inslee recently said, “It is not process that is at the heart of the wildfire threat. It is a lack of money, combined with continued drought and a history of poor management.”

Most experts agree the various Congressional proposals do not deal with the issue in a comprehensive approach throughout the country. At least the issue has jumped up on the Congressional agenda. In a recent meeting, western Governors highlighted the forest health crisis as one of the most pressing issues facing them.

The health of the forest on public lands has become a problem as the government over the last 100 years has fought many of the smaller fires. These wildfires serve to clean house and reduce the fuel load in the woods, which decreases the chances of a massive crown fire. 

Major environmental organizations have scrambled over the past couple of years to change public perception that they share much of the blame for worsening forest health conditions. Some in the government and industry have pointed to a barrage of lawsuits and appeals from preservationists as a reason why little has been done to remedy the forest health crisis.


What’s In the Works

This year the House of Representatives passed the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, and the Senate is currently considering a companion bill.  Sponsored by Rep. Greg. Walden, R-Ore., and Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., the Healthy Forest Restoration Act addresses many of the issues outlined by President Bush last fall. The bill streamlines review procedures for proposed actions including thinning projects and prescribed burns. The bill would still require a full environmental analysis for the proposed action. However, it would not require federal land mangers to study a wide variety of options, as is currently part of the process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The Walden/McInnis bill calls for an additional public meeting over and above the current requirements while limiting appeals that can stall projects or delay them indefinitely.

The Forest Service is the only land management agency to have a separate appeals process. Critics for years have complained that it has become burdensome and combative. The Walden/McInnis bill directs the Forest Service to develop an appeals process for forest health treatment projects that is similar to the one used by other agencies. “If a program is good enough for Yellowstone National Park, it is good enough for the Forest Service,” said Blair Jones, the press secretary for Rep. McInnis.

Using the courts to block projects has been a favorite tactic for many green advocacy groups. The Walden/McInnis bill requires federal courts to extend preliminary injunctions every 45 days. Currently these directives can stay in place for months without any judicial attention. The bill also directs courts to consider the potentially devastating environmental consequences of inaction and to give deference to the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management scientific determinations.

Recognizing the need for more scientific data on forest pests, the Walden/McInnis bill calls for federal land managers to conduct accelerated programs to research various treatment techniques on a number of insect species. It even allows the government to conduct 1,000 acre clear-cuts if necessary for pest research.

Rep. McInnis said, “The proliferation of catastrophic wildfire and massive insect and disease outbreaks is, in my estimation, the single largest and most daunting challenge facing our natural resource managers today.”    

The Walden/McInnis bill enjoys support from both sides of the aisle with 92 co-sponsors including 14 Democrats. Yet some Democrats have complained that the Walden/McInnis bill adds little money to solve the problem. "The biggest problem we face is not process, it is money," Rep. Inslee, said. "There are 190 million acres you may want to treat in some fashion, we appropriate enough to do 2.5 million a year." While the bill does not designate the funds needed for widespread treatment, it does remove many of the hurdles to proposed action and takes some of the bureaucratic cost out of the system. 

With the forest health crisis having become increasingly visible to the general public, Congress will likely try to take action this session. The forest health issue impacts everyone in the forest products industry, including pallet companies and sawmills. Pests and wildfire not only affect the beauty of public land, they also impact the quality and supply of timber on private land throughout the country.


Reaching A Workable Solution

All sides appear to make some valid points. Treating areas around communities and sensitive watersheds makes sense and should be the top targets. But refusing to go deep into the forests, largely ignores the underlining problem. Scientifically sound methods, such as thinning and prescribed burning, must be used deep in the forests where many of the major wildfires start. More money should be spent on preventing forest health problems. In the long term, more prevention leads to less wildfire and fewer pest outbreaks.

One way to put government resources to the best use is to streamline the approval process. People must continue to have a say, but the current bureaucratic process is a nightmare. Congressman McInnis said that it can take upwards of several years to get a thinning project near a community through the federal maze of analysis, appeals and lawsuits. He called it paralysis by analysis. The longer we delay, the worse the problem will get.

Of course, there are those who say look at the long-term picture. Forget about managing the public land for this generation. Change is a natural part of the earth as erosion, wildfire, water, avalanches, glaciers and other natural elements shape the land. These preservationists oppose almost any effort to treat areas others than those directly around at-risk communities. They believe if you let Mother Nature takes its course – the problem will correct itself in a hundred years or more. Sure, the fire problem will get even worse during our lifetime. But it will be restored back to a proper natural balance in time. Those encouraging the hands off approach point to possible damage caused by erosion or other efforts by man to intervene.

There is one big difference between now and early in the last century when we started fighting all the fires and mismanaging the land, we have better science today and are more adept at making the proper decision. We know what will happen if we follow the same course we have been on. If the government and private sector take a reasoned, scientific-based approach to managing the land, the problem can be corrected. It will take a lot of money and effort. The problem took nearly 100 years to create. It will not be solved overnight.


 Are Radical Environmentalists Full of Bull?

This summer the acclaimed magicians and showmen, Penn & Teller, exposed the secret behind environmental hysteria in their TV show called “BS,” which appears on the Showtime network.

Penn & Teller showed how hype and passionate feelings fuel much of the modern environmental movement. They illustrated this point by setting up a group of environmental activists at a rally in Washington DC. They passed around a petition to ban di hydroxen monoxide (water). The people trying to get signatures never lied, but they did mask their pitch for the petition in the code words of environmental hysteria. It worked. Hundreds of people signed a petition to ban water. Yes, you heard right. These eco-extremists blindly signed a petition to ban water.  

            The Penn & Teller show interviewed Dr. Patrick Moore, an ecologist and former founder of Greenpeace. Moore has made headlines by turning over a new leaf and supporting commercial logging as a viable and necessary part of the global economy.

Moore described the modern environmental movement as “elitist.” He said, “Most of the environmental movement is composed of white, upper to middle class people who are I think incorrectly telling people in the rest of the world what to do.”

Moore left Greenpeace after he saw it change for the worse. He said, “The environmental movement was basically hijacked by political and social activists who came in and learned how to use green rhetoric to cloak agendas that had more to do with anti-capitalism, anti-globalization and anti-business and had very little to do with science or ecology. And that is when I left.”

It’s funny how the New York Times and the major TV networks can’t seem to get it right. But two Las Vegas magicians are able to accurately peg the greens as frauds and dopes.


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