Thursday :: Aug 14, 2003

Promoting Unhealthy Forests

by Mary

Guest post by Palamedes
The Bush Administration has had kicking around for a while something called the Healthy Forests Initiative (HFI). In the midst of a tense fire season, while most of the West is suffering a fourth year of drought, with fresh memories of the seven million acres burned by unintended fires in 2002, and with increasing numbers of people purchasing homes adjacent to national forests, they are attempting to take advantage of the situation this summer and make the HFI law. They are, as before, using fear and a desire in the midst of tension to “do something” to subsidize commercial interests at the expense of taxpayers while creating a situation that make the situation worse for all involved once implemented.

The purpose of the HFI is twofold – reduce hazardous fuel buildup and “Fulfilling the promise of the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan.”

Let’s talk about hazardous fuel buildup first. The majority of people directly involved in forestry, from managers to smokejumpers, will tell you that a policy of reducing hazardous fuel buildup by manually thinning young conifer trees, brush and scrub, followed by prescribed, controlled burns within forests will, over time, create a forest with a larger proportion of large, mature trees. A forest with more mature trees provides greater amounts of shade and moisture, and the result is a cooler forest. In the environmental impact research from the development of the Roadless Rule, the Forest Service found that fires are twice as likely to occur in previously roaded and logged areas than in large roadless areas. Each dollar spent on prescribed burning saves an average of seven dollars spent on fighting fires.

If you want to reduce hazardous fuel buildup without starting a prescribed fire, the most important place to do it is within 500 yards of homes adjacent to the forests. Clearing brush and scrub within that radius, changing building codes to force the replacement of wooden shingles and shakes with non-burning materials, and maintaining an appeals process that allows all members of the forest community to have a say - companies, environmentalists and members of local communities alike - will be most effective in reducing uncontrollable fire hazards.

However, the HFI considers cutting down large, mature trees as part of hazardous fuel reduction, and doesn’t discuss creating firebreaks between homes and the forest. Also, quietly, the Bush administration wants to cut funding for the National Fire Plan, the means by which hazardous fuel buildup can be most effectively reduced.

Here’s a handy quote to remember from the HFI regarding this - "The projected sustainable timber supply has failed to materialize, and the fire prone areas of the forest are unhealthier now than before the plan existed." It equates not getting “enough” timber cut with the increase in hazardous fuel for potential uncontrollable fires, when in fact the excessive cutting of mature timber (and the preparations necessary, such as the creation of roads, to make it happen) increases the likelihood of uncontrollable fires.

Second, less than 40% of planned timber volume was sold in 2001 under the Northwest Forest Plan. The Bush Administration wants that number to be much higher, but it butts into some realities.

Presently, we have overstocked national forests, primarily of smaller trees that can’t be easily cut into 2x4s, which are what’s profitable, in large part because of fire suppression and the large-scale thinning of mature trees in the past. The Bush administration hopes that they can convince the timber companies to accept the harvest of smaller, less profitable trees in return for an easier time going after existing mature trees as well. (Call it faith-based timber management.)

And how will they do this?

They remove the threat of “lawsuits by environmentalists” through categorical exclusions: something for which the President does not need to seek congressional approval. During the fire season of 2002, a Forest Service spokesperson stated on the radio that environmentalists were stalling fuel reduction thinnings with lawsuits and that this was why the forests were burning. But the Government Accounting Office reported in August 2001 that out of 1,671 hazardous fuel reduction projects in fiscal year 2001, only 20 had been appealed and none had been litigated. The Bush Administration, in response, came up with a study of its own, focusing on only 326 projects, which found that 48% of projects were appealed and 20% went into litigation. Most of these were timber sales that did not qualify for the Congressional fuels reduction fund.

In fact, Jack Ward Thomas, the former head of the Forest Service, has said that during the 1990s, the Congress stopped more requests to fund thinning and controlled burns than environmental groups ever did.

Presently, 96% of all wood product needs are satisfied through owners of privately owned forests. Canada, South America and other areas are trying to export timber into the United States as fast as they can. Prices for timber are 10% cheaper, on average, than during the early 1990s. In the end, especially at a time when there is more cut lumber available than demand for it, the forest companies will avoid harvesting the smaller trees, and in the process of thinning, will only cut down the larger, most profitable trees, creating an environment that leads to a greater likelihood of uncontrollable fires. And you and I will subsidize this theft.

Mary :: 10:10 PM :: Comments (8) :: Digg It!