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A Real Healthy Forests Initiative

by Michael Donnelly

With all the Big Timber-generated hysteria about “environmentalists causing forest fires” as rationale for another Public forest grab, a real analysis of the situation is in order. In none of industry’s calls for more logging, do we have any explanation of, perhaps, the greatest mystery of the Universe: how did these forests ever limp along for tens of thousands of years without the aid of foresters?

In the 1950s, the Forest Service (USFS) embarked on a program they called “Snag Management.” Operating on the theory that snags (dead standing trees) were “lightning rods,” the USFS began to lop them off and leaving the trunks on the ground to decay. The results can be easily seen today with a short stroll down the South Breitenbush Gorge National Scenic Trail in the Oregon Cascades. The USFS often sweetened the pot for the cutters by allowing them to take live merchantable trees off to the mills when they sanitized the ecosystem of the offending snags.

Decades later, the USFS realized that the snags were the Wildlife Hotels of the forests. These snags served as the homes of many of the predators needed to eat the bugs that periodically outbreak in the forest. So now the USFS is paying folks to climb perfectly healthy old growth trees, plant explosive charges in the tops and inject heart rot into the trees in a process called “Snag Recruitment.”

It was all part of Smokey Bear’s full court press against “forest fires.” And, it is just one of the faulty fire prevention efforts that have been a multibillion dollar form of corporate welfare, for the benefit of Big Timber. In Smokey’s 60 years of demonizing fire, one of the four elements in which these forests evolved, this zero tolerance of fires policy has cost the taxpayers, damaged ecosystems and, indeed, made the forests, themselves, MORE vulnerable to major, catastrophic fires.

First, the USFS sells off the big, most fire-resistant trees at a loss to taxpayers (a subsidy estimated at over $1 billion per year). Taking down these trees opens up the forest floor to more sunlight, drying it out and making it more fire prone. Then the USFS replaces the mature stand with plantations of highly flammable even-aged monocultures. Then the USFS embarks on a program of fire suppression, allowing the buildup of small, sickly trees and brush.

Now, we have George W. Bush coming to Oregon and calling for more of the same. His “Healthy Forests Initiative” proposes to log more than 2.5 million acres of federal forests under suspension of all applicable environmental laws. As usual, it’s another Bush “initiative” that guts environmental protections, provides financial breaks for already wealthy individuals and corporations and does away with pesky public oversight. Couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that the timber industry contributes 82 percent of its millions in annual political contributions to Republicans, could it?

The goal? To get at those large, moneymaking trees that have been off-limits to Big Timber under current environmental protections. While spouting a lot of rhetoric about the need to clear away the “fuels” that have accumulated as the result of Smokey’s success, the USFS and industry are really about cutting the big, merchantable trees. The small trees and brush around human habitation — the real threat — have no commercial value. So, the Forest Service chief has said that large, mature trees must be cut to make the “thinning” efforts financially feasible.

That’s not all. In Oregon’s largest forest fire ever, the Biscuit Fire in the Siskiyou Range in SE Oregon, over 45,000 acres of Ancient Forests were torched, not by nature, but by the USFS in an unnecessary “backfire,” set to protect a town that wasn’t even threatened. In fact, estimates are that over a third of all acres burned so far this year in the West were ignited by such USFS backburns. (That doesn’t even account for the hundreds of thousands of acres of fires deliberately set by federal firefighting employees in Colorado and Arizona.)

Here’s my Healthy Forests Initiative:

— Place all remaining Ancient Forest stands off limits to logging;

— Spend part of the over $1 billion the USFS costs the Treasury annually on timber sales on clearing the sickly trees and brush around the edges of the National Forests instead;

— Purchase and remove homes built in highly vulnerable areas;

— Allow nature’s regular, low-intensity fires to once again burn through the forests, cleansing them of built-up fuels and the breeding grounds for destructive insects and diseases;

— Suppress fires only where a loss of life is immanent;

— Change the Forest Service’s mission to make Clean Water production the top priority;

– Fund the Forest Service’s transition into a full on Recreation Agency.

The forests will recover, the taxpayers will save money, recreationists will have a safer, more enjoyable experience and our water supplies will be more protected and predictable. Smokey’s well meaning, though failed efforts should be ended and sent to that repository of other follies of the past, like Snag Management. And, current follies like the Bush “Healthy Forests Initiative” must be recognized for what it is, a Big Timber handout that, like Smokey, only exacerbates the problem.

PS As to the canard about environmentalist obstructionism causing forest fires, the General Accounting Office of Congress found that our of a total of over 10,000 legitimate “Fuels Reduction Thinning” projects, only three! were appealed by environmentalists.

Michael Donnelly, from Salem, OR is a small woodlot owner and longtime defender of Public Forests.

He can be reached at:


MICHAEL DONNELLY has been an environmental activist since before that first Earth Day. He was in the thick of the Pacific Northwest Ancient Forest Campaign; garnering some collective victories and lamenting numerous defeats. He can be reached at

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