Don’t Blame the Greens for These Fires

by Andrew George

"Methinks he doth protest too much," wrote Shakespeare in MacBeth. Recently, the same warning applies to the logging industry’s desperate demagoguery and the wildfires of 2002.

They place blame on "environmental obstructionists" for the wildfires in Arizona and Colorado. Even the N.C. Forestry Association president accused environmentalists of using lawsuits to block legitimate fuel-reduction projects, and thus, the forests have become tinderboxes where "one in three acres was already dead or dying." This is wrong.

A report last year by the General Accounting Office found that only 20 of 1,671 fuel-reduction projects had been appealed by outside interests. And none of the projects had been litigated. In Arizona, out of more than 230 such projects, only one was appealed, and that appeal never went to court. In short, there were no lawsuits.

Radio talk-show host Jim Hightower once said, "If you find you have dug yourself into a hole, quit digging." The timber industry should take this advice.

However, in response to the GAO’s report, former timber industry lobbyist and current US Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, Mark Rey, released a new report Wednesday, July 10, which, he claimed, proved environmentalists were exacerbating the fire threat by suing the US Forest Service.

Rey forgets to mention, however, that environmentalists supported legitimate burning and thinning projects of small trees near communities at risk from forest fires. No, the Forest Service was sued when they proposed logging of old growth forests, roadless areas, and endangered species habitat.

The timber industry is simply trying to exploit the catastrophic wildfires in order to gut environmental regulations and increase commercial logging in OUR national forests. Unfortunately, commercial logging will only intensify the danger of fires, not prevent them.

The wildfires of 2002 are a legacy of 100 years of fire suppression, commercial logging and livestock grazing. All three practices favored the growth of small, spindly trees, while timber companies cut down the largest, most fire- resistant trees.

During NFPA’s 2002 Wildfire Summit held in Missoula, MT last month, USFS Researcher Jack Cohen, emphasized that the best way to protect homes from fire is to eliminate combustible fuels immediately surrounding the home. The Stanford Research Institute found a 95 percent survival rate for homes with nonflammable roofs and a 30-60 feet clearance of surrounding vegetation. The point is clear: the factors that contribute the most to home ignition are located within the home’s immediate surroundings – not miles away in the forest.

In response to the wildfires of 2000, Congress dramatically increased funding for federal wildland fire management programs-called the National Fire Plan. To date, over $6.6 billion in taxpayer dollars have been allocated for implementation of the plan. Instead of using this public money to protect people’s homes from fire, however, the logging industry and the US Forest Service are using these funds to plan commercial logging projects in remote areas where the biggest, most economically valuable trees are.

During congressional oversight hearings in 2001, the Forest Service’s then National Fire Plan Coordinator, Lyle Laverty, revealed that only 25 percent of these funds were spent protecting areas near homes, despite clear direction from Congress to spend 100 percent of the monies to protect communities. What is going on here?

The General Accounting Office stated in its 2002 report that, "It is not possible to determine if the $796 million appropriated for hazardous fuels reduction is targeted to the communities and other areas at highest risk." The Inspector General for the Department of Agriculture also recently reprimanded the Forest Service for inappropriately using National Fire Plan monies intended for restoration projects on commercial timber sales.

The solution: The National Forest Protection and Restoration Act (H.R. 1494). This is a bipartisan bill introduced in Congress in 1997 that allows for the treatment of brush, small diameter trees and even fire ladders to reduce hazardous fuels.

In addition, this bill would end the commercial logging program in our federal lands and return over $500 million annually to the taxpayer.

Over 221 of the nation’s preeminent scientists signed a letter to the president in April calling for permanent protection of our federal lands from commercial logging, as envisioned in the National Forest Protection & Restoration Act.

It is time for the US Forest Service and the timber industry to accept responsibility for their mismanagement. Commercial logging is the problem, not the solution.

Andrew George is National Forest Protection Alliance Southeast Field Organizer.

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