Bush Tilts Forest Policy
BY WILLIAM BOOTH
THE WASHINGTON POST
QUINCY, Calif. -- The woods here look woolly and wild, but federal foresters see them as sick -- and scary.
The trees are too crowded, the ground too brushy and the houses, schools and businesses too close to the coming infernos of next season's wildfires. According to the Forest Service, this whole pretty place is actually a match waiting to be lit.
And so are an additional 296,875 square miles of federal forest and rangeland -- a landmass equaling about 12 percent of the nation.
"Catastrophic wildfire here is not a question of if but when," said Bernie Weingardt, deputy regional forester for the Forest Service. He points out the window of his truck at the hamlet of Quincy, an island in a sea of green. "This whole place could go."
Faced with these dire assessments, President Bush pledged to reverse what he called a century of mismanagement and to "thin" the national woodlands in order to save them. It is an undertaking that will require decades of work and billions in taxpayer dollars, and it will drastically change the way many forests look.
Rebuffed by a divided Congress last fall, his administration is now busy overturning Clinton-era protections with sweeping new agency rules -- changes that environmentalists charge will open the federal lands to much more aggressive logging.
The new rules seek to shorten the time members of the public, and especially environmentalists, have to comment on and litigate logging and thinning, to overcome what Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth has called "analysis paralysis," and what Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman called "outdated, inefficient and time-consuming processes that often delay projects to improve forest and rangeland health until it's too late."
The new rules also will allow federal foresters and the timber companies to fell larger, bigger trees -- and a lot of them -- to reduce the potential of wildfires and to pay for the work by offering the lumber companies harvestable wood products, in a bid to make the timber industry "stewards" of the national forests.
"This is a tragic day," said Craig Thomas, director of the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign, a 76-group environmental coalition that has fought to secure increased protection for old growth forests.
But lost in the political tug of war is the fact that there is widespread disagreement among even the most knowledgeable forest experts over how to make the public lands more fire-retardant. Trim a little? Or chain saw a lot?
Thin the perimeters around homes and towns, the so-called urban-wildland interface, as the environmentalists want? Or aggressively log entire forests into more parklike settings, even deep in the woods, felling trees in the most ancient groves, as the timber industry and its allies endorse? The Forest Service's own researchers confess they do not know answers to the most basic questions.
"How does this ever-changing ecosystem respond to an array of treatments?" asked Peter Stine, lead investigator at the Forest Service Sierra Nevada Research Center in Davis, Calif. "How to create a more naturally fire-resistant forest while preserving threatened species like owls, frogs and salmon, and hoary old growth trees, older than the Declaration of Independence, that harbor them?
"You'd think we would know the answers," Stine said. "We don't."
After the wildfires of the summer of 2000, the federal government created the National Fire Plan, and Congress responded by tripling support for fuel reduction. It is an expensive proposition: Simply clearing brush and small trees, which must be done by hand, typically costs more than $500 for a single acre.
At the rate the woods are now being "treated," it will take almost a century to do the job. Last year, the government managed to treat -- by thinning, selective logging and prescribed burns -- just 2.2 million of the 190 million acres at risk.
Moreover, the treatment activities are often delayed or overwhelmed by the need to fight wildfires. Last year, in one of the worst fire seasons on record, more than 7 million acres burned, roughly equal to the size of New Hampshire.
The Bush administration would like timber companies to log valuable timber in exchange for clearing unsalable brush. Many environmentalists want taxpayers to foot the bill, fearing a return to the clear-cutting spree of the 1980s that left hillsides barren and streams choked with muddy runoff.
In the final days of the Clinton administration, the Forest Service settled on rules to protect rare species such as the spotted owl and old-growth forest.
This month, the Bush administration's reversal of the Clinton-era rules were unveiled. It allows for logging large, old trees -- the very ones that the old rules sought to protect. Environmentalists are certain to sue, but foresters argue it is time for the fighting to stop.
"People think that if we don't do anything, it'll all look this way forever. They're wrong," said Jim Pena, supervisor of the Plumas National Forest. "It won't. The old forests will burn. And then, they'll be gone."
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