Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How Fires May Forge Truce in 'Timber Wars' ; New Approaches Could Bridge Political Divides

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How Fires May Forge Truce in 'Timber Wars' ; New Approaches Could Bridge Political Divides

Article excerpt

As firefighters from as far away as New Zealand work to dampen one of the worst wildfire seasons in US history, Democrats and Republicans in Congress and state capitols are joining forces to make the West less flammable.

Once the smoke clears, which may not be until seasonal rains return in the fall, this could be the means for negotiating a truce in the West's "timber wars." For more than a decade, loggers in hard hats have clashed against environmentalists willing to chain themselves to ancient trees. The current crisis is also opening up the possibility for innovative ways of making forest thinning (not to be confused with massive clear-cuts) commercially viable. Even some conservation groups now favor this, despite their traditional opposition to anything involving a chain saw.

President Bush this week visits the "Biscuit Fire," now spread over nearly 450,000 acres in Oregon and California, highlighting an issue that is as politically charged as it's ever been.

"My state is burning up right now," says Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon. "It's absolutely critical that we, on a bipartisan basis, move aggressively with a fuels-reduction program to reduce fires."

Senator Wyden has joined with Sen. Larry Craig (R) of Idaho to sponsor a bill that would protect older trees while making it easier for timber companies to cut younger trees in federal forests. It would do that by speeding up the appeals process that has effectively blocked many sales.

This is in line with what other lawmakers want as well. "Without active management, we will be asking ourselves in a few short years where our forests have gone," a bipartisan group of senators warned recently. "We must deal with this problem and take an aggressive proactive approach to fire and forest management."

Western governors - from liberal Democrat John Kitzhaber of Oregon to conservative Republican Judy Martz of Montana - are also eager to get beyond the political and legal delays symbolized by such incendiary buzzwords as "salvage logging."

Foreign terrain for Democrats

This turn of events is putting Democrats at odds with many of their traditional supporters in the environmental community. But there's also a sense that the important thing is forest protection and fire prevention - not simply scoring political points.

"The bottom line has to be solution-driven rather than blame- driven," says Lou Gold, a longtime forest activist who lives near the massive fire in southern Oregon that has been burning for more than a month and is only 35 percent contained.

If anything, the science of forest management is even more complicated than its politics.

Across much of the West, the natural fires that historically swept the forest floor while leaving the larger trees have been replaced by a century of fire suppression, industrial logging, and tree plantations. …

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