Moving toward Sound Forest Management

By Coon, Charli E. | Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Moving toward Sound Forest Management


Coon, Charli E., Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum


Without question, the "leave-the-woods -alone" crowd led the way in the making of the United States' forest management policy for the last forty years. For years, we have backed off and backed out. We have left brush to gather and disease to fester. We have learned much about how to care for forests, how to keep them healthy, and how to keep those who live near them safe; this is evidenced by the fact that more trees grow in America today than ever before. (1) And we have kept that knowledge, to a large extent. to ourselves.

And now we reap what we have sown. Our forests are unnaturally dense and prone to disease and insect infestation. (2) They are tinderboxes either already on fire or susceptible to going up in spectacular blazes at the careless drop of one match or, even farther beyond our control, one bolt of lightning.

That is why, in 2000, the United States suffered its worst wildfires in fifty years. (3) That is why, in last year alone, wildfires burned more than 7 million acres of public and private lands, causing the deaths of 23 firefighters. destroying thousands of structures, and forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate their homes. (4) That does not even include the wildfires in California that charred three-quarters of a million acres. (5)

That is why the U.S. Forest Service now lists 70 million acres at "extreme risk" and 120 million acres as suffering "unnatural risk" of devastating fires. (6) And finally, that is why fire and forest experts predict more catastrophic fires unless we change our ways. (7) How did we get to this point?

I. THE SEEDS OF FOREST ILLNESS

As the population expands and people move closer to forests, it becomes even more critical that they be actively and properly managed. But even if that were not the case, even if fewer people than figured moved near forests in the next twenty or thirty years, it is still time for us to recognize that the hands-off policy has been tried for an extended period. And it has failed.

It has created an unhealthy, unsafe, and unsustainable atmosphere. According to Dr. Thomas Bonnicksen, a forest ecologist and professor in the Department of Forest Science at Texas A&M University, forest density is ten times what it should be. (8) Often, 300 trees stand on an acre where 30 would be natural and sustainable. (9) Overcrowding does for trees what it sometimes does for people--sets off harmful battles for limited nutrients and water, making them more susceptible to disease and insect infestation. (10) Throw in a drought, and these areas become prime candidates for devastating wildfires.

But fires are not always harmful--they cleanse the forest and maintain its health. Catastrophic fires, on the other hand, thanks to excessive brush or load on the ground, burn unnaturally hot. (11) These fires do not help wild life; they destroy it. (12) They do not clear habitats; they consume them. (13) They sterilize the soil, leaving it infertile. (14) They pollute the air and water. (15) And because they burn so hot, firefighters find it difficult to get a handle on them, which enables them to spread over vast areas; and this, in turn, makes them even harder to fight.

To exacerbate matters, bureaucratic rules made by people unfamiliar with the workings of forests and frivolous lawsuits by extreme activists have impeded commonsense thinning and fuel reduction projects in our forests. When the Forest Service attempted to clear underbrush, reduce the "fuel" for wildfires on the ground, and otherwise thin the forests, it faced a mountain of paperwork, multiple analyses and other unnecessary bottlenecks. (16)

Experts say that prior to Bush Administration reforms, the roadblocks and the tremendous amount of litigation that plague even the most modest efforts at forest management consume 40 percent of the agency's total direct work at the national forest level. (17) In California, where wildfires dominated the front pages most of the summer and fall, over the last two years, two-thirds of the Forest Service's thinning projects were held up by appeals by activist groups.

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