Seasonal rains and blessedly cooler weather have pretty much
brought an end to this year's scorching fire season across the West.
But the heat and smoke of the political battle over how to deal
with millions of acres of fire-prone national forest lingers like a
smoldering stump. And the way it's being argued reflects the Bush
administration's general approach to environmental protection. From
global warming to endangered species to clean air and water, there's
a tendency to favor economic solutions to problems that aren't
easily measured in dollars and cents.
The president and his supporters in Congress want to reduce the
wildfire danger by making it easier for loggers to thin trees and
brush. To do this, they argue, regulations need to be streamlined,
lengthy lawsuits shortened, and the ability of citizens to appeal
tree cutting ought to be limited.
Those who stand to benefit directly from Mr. Bush's Healthy
Forests Initiative favor this approach. W. Henson Moore, head of the
American Forest & Paper Association, an industry trade group, calls
the plan "a balanced, scientific, common-sense approach to
protecting our federal lands."
Others are not so sure.
"One person's streamlining is another person's gutting," says
Robert Vandermark of the National Environmental Trust in Washington.
It's not just the usual suspects - tree-huggers versus the timber
industry - involved in the debate.
Before this summer's blazes, Western governors (Republicans as
well as Democrats) had put together a 10-year plan to reduce fire
danger by thinning out forests. The administration had signed on to
that plan, but now wants to go further - insisting that fire-
reduction logging has to be economically profitable, which means
cutting some big trees as well as the fire-prone thicket of smaller
trees and undergrowth. And it wants exemptions to some of the
nation's premier environmental laws to do so.
This has left some Western governors grumbling.
"Capitalizing on the legitimate concern over wildfires to justify
stripping away federal environmental laws is not, in the end, going
to improve overall forest health," Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber
(D) said last week. "Why? Because it will repolarize the debate and
it will increase the likelihood that absolutely nothing is going to
happen on this issue this year in Congress."
Other critics remain skeptical that a pay-for-itself forest
thinning program is possible. Even when clea-cutting larger, more
valuable trees in national forests was routine, Uncle Sam
consistently lost money on timber sales to private companies.
To reduce fire danger on the 10 million acres of federal land
most at risk, experts say, will take a tidier approach - one that
more closely mimics the natural fires that periodically thin out
vegetation between larger, fire-resistant trees. …