Some extreme environmentalists say President Bush is using this
year's devastating forest fires as an "excuse" to let the timber
industry do more thinning, which is a strange use of the word
"excuse." It's like saying a witness to a bank robbery used the
robbery as an "excuse" to call the police.
This year's fires, in addition to threatening lives and destroying
homes, have devastated 6 million acres worth of forest. That is
something on the order of New Hampshire going up in smoke, and there
is nothing restorative about these fires. They are fierce because of
the fuel buildup of too much underbrush, too many small trees, too
many dead trees. When these fires get going in hot, dry, windy
weather, they are very nearly unstoppable, and they do more damage
than logging companies ever could.
There was once a time when forests were thinned by nature by
tamer wildfires. But after a horrendous fire early in the 20th
century, the Forest Service adopted a suppression policy that allowed
the fuel to accumulate, and the extreme environmentalists have since
stood in the way of the next, best available means of thinning. That's
to do it mechanically, allowing timber companies to take out the
underbrush and small trees while also cutting down some larger trees.
The environmentalists have tried to dodge the blame, but facts
caught up with them in a Forest Service report showing that, over an
18-month period ending in June, environmentalists filed administrative
appeals delaying close to half the mechanical thinning projects aimed
at reducing fire hazards.
The president wants to make it more
difficult for these groups to tie the hands of the Forest Service and
also to ease some of the restrictions on timber companies.
What the president does not propose is a denuding of forests; under
his plan, the companies would not be given anything approximating
carte blanche. They will certainly leave fewer trees per acre than
there are now, but as Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton writes in
a USA Today op-ed piece, there were 25 trees per acre in the Northwest
in the days of Lewis and Clark. Today, she notes, there are as many as
Forests will never return to what they were before any human
intervention, but despite the contrary cries of the extremists, they
will be closer to what they were with selective logging than with the
policies they advocate, and they will be far less likely to be
annihilated by raging fires.
Jay Ambrose is director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard