February 15, 2003
Months after the conclusion of a busy and destructive 2002 forest fire season, the debate of how to deal with forests continued to rage between environmental groups and the Bush administration.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, wildfires burned over 7.1 million acres of public and private lands during the summer of 2002, mostly in the western U.S. While battling these fires, 21 firefighters were killed. Tens of thousands of people were evacuated from their homes, thousands of structures were destroyed, and hundreds of millions of trees were burned, said the USDA.
“We face a crisis of forest and rangeland health of unprecedented proportions, where millions of acres of land desperately need more effective management to promote ecosystem restoration,” said James L. Connaughton, chairman of the Bush administration’s Council on Environmental Quality, in a Dec. 11, 2002 press release.
During the height of the fire season in August 2002, President Bush announced the Healthy Forests Initiative, which directed the USDA and CEQ to develop administrative and legislative measures to help reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire to forests and rangelands.
Since then, rules have been proposed and environmentalists have responded strongly to what they see as a diminishing of environmental protections and public involvement in the management of national forests. They also argue that policies are being proposed that wrongfully alter the appeals process.
According to the Wilderness Society, the Bush administration has blamed environmentalists for using the appeals process to delay thinning projects to reduce fire risks. The group, in a Feb. 7, 2003 statement, denied this and said the claim is a subterfuge to get the public out of public forest management by playing on people’s legitimate fears of fire.
The group cited a 2001 study by the U.S. Government Accounting Office that found that only 1 percent of hazardous fuels-reduction projects were appealed. However, the Wilderness Society said the administration and some members of Congress have advocated exempting thinning projects from appeal, or even repealing the Appeals Reform Act altogether.
Healthy forests or logging boom?
On Dec. 11, 2002, the USDA and CEQ proposed four items addressing the regulatory processes guiding forest health activities, including:
- New procedures to enable “fuels treatment” or forest thinning, and forest-restoration (reseeding and planting) projects to “proceed quickly.” Stressing the need to work in collaboration with state, local and tribal governments, the proposed procedures would eliminate the need for individual analyses of fuels-treatment/forest-restoration projects when environmental analysis has been performed for similar projects.
- Amendment of administrative appeal rules to expedite appeals of forest-health projects by letting projects move ahead without an administrative stay and require fuels-treatment appeals to be heard as quickly as possible and decided within 60 days.
- Encouraging the use of several streamlining techniques to expedite the consultation process, such as carrying out integrated regional planning for fuels-treatment projects, as well as clarifying that Endangered Species Act evaluations should consider the long-term environmental benefits of fuels treatment projects and the potential for adverse effects. Projects with net benefits should be expedited.
- Establishing an improved and focused process for conducting environmental assessments under the National Environmental Policy Act for healthy forests projects.
In reply to these proposals, the Wilderness Society said they would reduce the types of activities subject to comment and appeal, and would allow salvage timber sales to proceed even while appeals are pending. In addition, the group said the proposals would unfairly limit the issues in an appeal to those specifically discussed in the appellant’s comments, even if the final project is different from the proposal.
Revised National Forest Management Act rules
A few weeks before the USDA/CEQ announcement, on Nov. 27, 2002, the U.S. Forest Service released a proposed land and resource management planning rule to provide forest managers “with more flexibility to tailor analyses to the specific characteristics and challenges presented by their forests and grasslands. It also eliminates most of the procedural requirements and redundancies in the planning process, which could allow plans to be completed in a third of the time.”
The proposed rule effected the requirement for diversity of plant and animal communities under the National Forest Management Act of 1976.
Sierra Club response
On Dec. 11, 2002, the Sierra Club weighed in on both the federal Nov. 27 and Dec. 11 announcements.
“By shutting the public out and promoting more logging, the Bush administration is leaving communities at risk from forest fires,” said Carl Pope, Sierra Club executive director, in a statement.
“It is disingenuous to promote increased logging packaged as fuel reduction. If the Bush administration is serious about protecting communities from forest fires, it should focus resources on real fuel reduction near at-risk communities instead of opening more loopholes for the timber industry,” said Pope.
The Sierra Club joined other conservation groups in promoting fuel-reduction projects within the so-called Community Protection Zone, 500 yards from communities at risk from wildfires. These fuel-reduction projects, according to the Sierra Club, would not need to limit public review or require extensive analysis and could be planned and implemented in a short timeframe.
In addition to allowing certain projects to proceed in Community Protection Zones without full environmental review, the Sierra Club and other groups introduced a seven-point Community Protection Fire Plan that included:
- Making protection of communities from fires the U.S. Forest Service’s No. 1 priority.
- Providing meaningful funding by committing the program to a minimum of five years, funded at $2 billion a year to go directly to fireproofing homes and removing hazardous fuels in the Community Protection Zones.
- Shifting USFS personnel skilled in preparing brush-clearing and thinning projects from backcountry, low-priority areas to the Community Protection Zones.
- Immediately executing the vast majority of fuel-reduction projects in the Community Protection Zones that raise no significant environmental issues.
- Restoring natural fires to ensure natural forests. Prescribed burns, said the Sierra Club, can help to reduce fuel buildup and restore healthy forest habitats.
- Protecting ancient and wild forest from logging and logging roads.
- Stopping the attack on forest protection safeguards
Forest health: The Wilderness Society view
The flurry of activity by the Bush administration, the Republican-controlled Congress, and the environmental community in the aftermath of the 2002 fire season underscored the deep rifts in forest policy perspectives.
While the fires were still raging, in June, 2002, the Wilderness Society’s president, William H. Meadows, issued a statement outlining his organization’s views of forest health.
Meadows pointed out, among other things, that severe drought in 2002, “combined with 90 years of trying to put out every fire and poorly managed commercial logging and livestock grazing were the main causes of the wildfires (of 2002).”
In a “fact sheet” issued with Meadows’ statements, the Wilderness Society noted that over the past 25 years, the number of homes in the areas adjoining national forests (the wildland/urban interface or “Red Zone”) increased by a factor of 10. Federal funds, the group argued, should be focused on making these homes less vulnerable to fire.
The group went on to explain its view that fire is natural and necessary to a healthy forest. Citing forests in the northern Rocky Mountains, for example, the Wilderness Society said nearly all of the forest ecosystem types evolved with fire, which routinely occurred in a mosaic pattern — burning intensely in some areas and only lightly in others. Some trees depend on the heat of fire to burn open their seed cones. Suppression of all fires, a policy born after fires that led to 87 deaths in 1910, “deprives a fire-prone land of the good fires it needs … and encourages large fires that can savage it,” according to Stephen J. Pyne of Arizona State University, who was quoted in the fact sheet.
Drought, said the Wilderness Society, was the main factor in the intensity of a wildfire season, and 2002 was one of the driest years ever in parts of the West. Drought conditions and high winds were driving fires across many firebreaks in Colorado, said the group, including the Colorado River and major highways.
The legacy of decades of fire suppression, livestock grazing and commercial logging have altered the national forests, the Wilderness Society contended, causing some fires to burn hotter. Most fires today are ignited by people, the group pointed out, and occur in areas where the forests’ natural cycles have been changed through fire suppression, grazing and logging.
The Wilderness Society also explained in its fact sheet its view of the role of logging and road-building in creating conditions ripe for wildfires. Logging, the group said, leaves piles of tinder after the least flammable part of the tree, the trunk, is removed. Branches and pine needles on the newly exposed forest floor are dried by the sun and wind, creating a highly flammable carpet. Because traditional logging generally removed the larger trees, the smaller trees that have grown in their place have created denser forests, especially in lower-elevation ponderosa pine stands.
As an example, the group said that all six of the Montana fires that destroyed homes and buildings in 2000 began in extensively roaded, developed and logged areas.
“The debris or slash left from clear-cutting is among the most hazardous fuels imaginable,” according to Pyne. The Wilderness Society said it does not oppose commercial logging in the national forests, but logging, if it occurs, must be conducted wisely.
Building roads through national forests increases the risk of fire, said the group. The national forests include more than 400,000 miles of roads. The Hayman fire, now the largest in Colorado history, burned in a mostly roaded area, according to the Wilderness Society.
Prescribed burns are viewed by ecologists as an effective tool for reintroducing fire to ecosystems and reducing the build-up of flammable material. Because of the smoke they create and the fear that they will get out of control, as one did near Los Alamos, N.M., there has been pressure on federal agencies that has prevented full use of this tool.
The focus on wildfires in the national forests, as opposed to other public and private lands, was another issue addressed by the Wilderness Society. National forests were not the only lands burning, the group noted. During the 2001 fire season, only 17 percent of the burned acreage was in national forests, while 44 percent was on state, tribal, or private land, according to the group. In addition, many of the areas that burned were non-forested landscapes, such as grasslands, sagebrush, and pinyon-juniper, where logging is not an issue.