"Healthy Forests" Rhetoric Is Thin Smokescreen for Logging Agenda
by Brian Segee

By many measures, the summer 2002 has been an extraordinary fire season. Predictably, the mainstream media coverage of this year's wildfires, such as the Rodeo-Chediski in Arizona and the Biscuit in Oregon, has focused almost exclusive on the destruction created by these blaze.

Yet, lost in this sensationalism is the fact that fire is an inevitable and vital natural process in the arid forests of the West, and that even massive blazes can be beneficial. Ecologists studying the half million acre Biscuit fire, for example, believe it will largely benefit the forest, and have discovered that over half of the area burned at extremely low severity or not at all. Similarly, much of the Northern Rockies area that burned in the summer of 2000 was lodgepole pine forest, an ecosystem which in fact depends upon high intensity crown fire events to thrive.

At the same time, there is no denying that many fires today are clearly burning at higher intensities than they did historically, especially within forests that historically burned frequently and at low intensities. Fire ecologists, for example, believe that Arizona's ponderosa pine forests historic experienced relatively few high severity crown fire events. In contrast, nearly one-third of the National Forest acreage within the 486,000 acre Rodeo-Chediski fire, an area dominated by ponderosa forest, burned at high severity.

Why the trend towards larger and more intense fires? Many scientists believe aggressive fire suppression practices during the past century are a primary cause. In a recent statement issued by several distinguished fire ecologists, University of Arizona professor Donald Falk states that "these enormous wildfires are the direct result of human changes to the forest system that have been going on for a century. The main change is the elimination of fire from the ecosystem."

Commercial logging operations and domestic livestock grazing have also played large roles in increasing fire severity. For nearly 100 years, logging companies have stripped our National Forests of the largest, most fire-resistant trees while often leaving behind dense stands of small, fire-prone forest and huge piles of highly flammable logging residue, known as slash. In a recent report to Congress, a team of Forest Service and academic scientists concluded that "timber harvest, through its effects on forest structure, local microclimate, and fuel accumulation, has increased fire severity more than any other recent human activity." Excessive livestock grazing, which removes native grasses that fuel low intensity surface fires and inhibit establishment of tree seedlings, has also contributed greatly to fire risk across the West.

Finally, the ferocious intensity of this summer's blazes was fueled by unprecedented, severe drought nationwide. In late July, nearly 40 percent of the country was experiencing drought; every Western state except Washington was drier than normal. Some states, including Arizona, Colorado and Wyoming, are in the threes of the worst extended droughts on record. Many scientists predict that this dry, hot weather will persist as the effects of global climate change intensify.

Ignoring the complexity and long historical roots of this issue, the Bush administration, conservative lawmakers, and the timber industry have simplistically blamed "environmentalists'' for this summer's blazes, claiming that administrative appeals, litigation and other forms of opposition have prevented the Forest Service and other agencies from reducing fuel loads on our public lands. Their solution: allow vastly increased levels of industrial logging while "streamlining" or eliminating environmental laws and citizen oversight.

But giving the timber industry carte blanche access to our nation's forests has already been tried--and failed miserably. Under the notorious 1995 Logging Without Laws Salvage Rider--attached as an amendment to the Oklahoma City Terrorism Relief Act--the Forest Service was permitted to exempt timber sales from environmental laws and eliminate citizen participation as long as those sales were designed to improve "forest health" through the logging of "dead, dying or diseased trees." Not surprisingly, the Forest Service instead rammed through hundreds of timber sales which logged perfectly healthy ancient forests, some as old as 600-800 years.

Clearly, without environmental laws and citizen pressure, the Forest Service will quickly revert to the types of destructive logging practices that catalyzed passage of many environmental laws in the first place. Yet, if the Forest Service would commit to implementation of legitimate fuel reduction and restoration projects such as prescribed and thinning of small-diameter trees, exemptions from environmental laws are clearly unnecessary. Such projects are widely supported by the conservation community and are neither appealed nor litigated.

The Center for Biological Diversity has historically and will continue to vigorously oppose sales that log old-growth and large trees under the pretext of fuels reduction, forest health or other excuses. It is the Forest Service's continued focus on logging of remnant old-growth forest and large trees, which often takes place in remote wildland areas and does nothing to reduce fire danger or protect communities, that continues to generate intense and well-deserved opposition.

© Center for Biological Diversity, Fall 2002