Forest or Against Us

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

How Many Rivers Do We Have To Cross,
Before We Can Talk To The Boss? Eh!
All That We Got, It Seems We Have Lost;
We Must Have Really Paid The Cost.
Burnin’ And A-lootin’ Tonight;
Burnin’ And A-lootin’ Tonight.

Burnin’ and a-Lootin’
by Bob Marley

George Bush descended on Oregon this week to fleece a million bucks from a band of local fat cats in Portland and shill for his new logging plan for the national forests…or in the slurpy Bush lexicon "for-ur-ests."

Outside the Chiles Center at the University of Portland, more than 5,000 protesters massed in a nearby park, clashing with police and taunting Bush with bullhorns and placards. A sample: "My Apache Helicopter, Killed Your Iraqi Honor Student;" "W. Lies: Impeach the Lying Mother-Hugger." "He Lied; They Died." One woman whirled down Lombard Street with her body adorned only by a finger-painted message proclaiming: "The Only Bush I Trust is My Own."

Inside the domed center, the Bush faithful supped on Columbia River salmon, huckleberry tarts and Oregon wine, at $2,000 a plate. Bush spoke for less than 20 minutes. No one complained about the brevity of his oration.

Lifting his metaphors from Gen. Westmoreland, the president explained to his handpicked audience of timber executives and Christian fundamentalists that he must log off the public’s forests in order to save them from their own incendiary instincts. It’s all about the health of the forest, averred the president.

According to the Bush doctor, the forests of the West are burning because they are sick, infected with a growing cancer of, yes, trees. The offending trees–the suicidal bombers of the national forests–must be extracted with haste using the delicate surgical bite of a chainsaw. All in the name of compassionate ecology.

If big timber makes a few hundred million bucks out of the operation, so what? The taxpayers love their forests and will be only too happy to foot the bill. You can’t say this administration isn’t willing to shell out money for the environment.

Of course, nothing scares people quite like images of raging fires. Freud, Jung and Karl Rove don’t agree on much, but they see eye-to-eye on the primal fear of fire and its potential uses to the political power structure. (See: Moses and Monotheism.) And Bush is manipulating the searing images of summer fires across the West–an annual ecological ritual dating back to the end of the ice ages–to bully through Congress his plan to open the national forests to unrestrained looting by his loyal allies in the timber industry, a sector which has been battered senseless by Bush’s recession.

On this hot August night, Bush had providence (or something like it) on his side. A few days prior to his visit, two fires erupted in the very area of the Deschutes National Forest, near Bend, Oregon, where Bush was set to make his pronouncements about how clearcutting ancient forests down a field of raw stumps serves as a kind of preventive medicine when it comes to forests fires.

Bush was supposed to deliver his sermon on the trees of mass destruction at Camp Sherman, a toney mountain resort studded with million dollar cabins absurdly erected in the heart of a fire prone forest. But the two fires converged and saturated the compound in what one resident described as "a snowstorm of smoke." The Bush carnival relocated to the fairgrounds in Redmond, a desert town 30 miles to the east.

The origin of those fires remains a mystery, largely because no one is looking very hard for the ignition points. Bush labeled them "wild" fires, but they were almost certainly arsons. There were no lightning strikes in that part of the forest the day fires started. A closure order had been issued in advance of the president’s visit. Who could have set them? For nearly a week that area on the eastern flank of Mt. Jefferson was closed to public entry for security reasons. Only Forest Service personnel and the Secret Service were permitted entry.

Most big fires are deliberately set, either by pyromaniacs (often working for the Forest Service) or by timber companies looking for a way to win access to cheap timber unencumbered by environmental considerations. One recent study from California estimated that two out of every three major fires was caused by arson. In the eastern United States, 99 percent of all forest fires are intentionally set by people. To paraphrase Charleton Heston: Trees don’t kill, Mr. President, people do.

In America these days, if you ignite a forest, your company gets rewarded with millions in free timber and a photo-op with the commander-in-chief. If you torch an SUV, you’re labeled a terrorist and get sent to the federal slammer for 10 years.

Regardless of the genesis of the fires, Bush got the backdrop his handlers craved. As he fumbled his way through his speech, Bush pointed ominously to the west at the towering plumes of smoke and leaping tongues of fire, as if they were the flaming ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah-the wages of pagan environmentalism.

"It’s a holocaust," cried Bush. "It’s devastating. We saw the flames jump from treetop to treetop."

To the uninitiated, the smoldering scene may have looked like Shock and Awe had just hit the forests of central Oregon. But in fact these fires were nothing out of the ordinary. Oregon’s forests, especially those on the dry, eastern slopes of the Cascade Mountains, evolved with fire. In fact, they are fire dependent forests, which need fire as much as they need water and soil. The ecological problems started when the Forest Service, largely at the behest of the timber industry, began suppressing forest fires around the turn of the century. This allowed brushy debris to accumulate on the forest floor, material that was normally cleansed out by frequent, low intensity wildfires. The agency exacerbated matters by logging off most of the big, fire-resistant trees. The old giants of the forests were replaced by scrubby trees and brush, attractive to insects and easily flammable. It’s an explosive mix that has turned normal fires into ferocious infernos.

The new Bush plan is the old light-and-log it approach dressed up in the dainty language of Clinton time. Bush calls his plan the Healthy Forest Initiative. Motto: No tree shall be left behind.

But it doesn’t have much to do with health or forests. It’s a logging plan, pure and simple. Bush talks about "thinning" the forest, as if he was proposing a kind of summer pruning operation. In fact, the Bush plan, which covers never 20 million acres of federal land, places no limits on the size of trees that can be logged. This means the timber industry will get to haul off giant Ponderosa pines and Douglas-firs that are hundreds of years old and provide habitat to some of the rarest wildlife species in the American west, including spotted owls and salmon. This sets up an inevitable collision between the Bush logging plan and environmental laws, such as the Endangered Species Act. Not to worry. The Bush plan also includes a provision that exempts it from compliance with these laws and largely shields it from appeals and lawsuits.

There’s not much in the Bush plan that will help reduce fire risks to communities near forests. The proposal is aimed exclusively at logging federal lands while numerous studies show that 85 percent of the land that surrounds communities most at risk from wildfires is private lands. Indeed it’s much more likely that logging will increase the fire risk. Many more fires start in logged over areas than in old-growth forests. There’s an easy explanation for this: clearcuts are on the average 20 percent hotter and drier than adjacent stands of mature forest. In addition, most forest fires started by humans occur near logging roads-the arsonists want fast access in and out.

That the Bush plan pleased the timber industry should surprise no one. After all, it was largely concocted last summer by Mark Rey, Undersecretary of Agriculture overseeing the Forest Service. For more than a decade, Rey served as the top lobbyist for the timber industry’s chief trade association, the National Forest Products Association. Rey received help from Mark Rutzick, a longtime timber-industry lawyer who in April was named senior adviser in the office of the general counsel of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees salmon issues in the Pacific Northwest. You’ve heard of embedded reporters? Well, these are embedded lobbyists.

Even with all this going for it, the Bush plan remains stymied. The House of Representatives approved the Healthy Forests Act this spring. But it is stalled, perhaps fatally, in the Senate.

Much of the credit can go to the environmental movement, which shows signs of beginning to recover its spine, if not its institutional memory. After eight years of rationalizing repeated Clintonian incursions against environmental laws, ranging from the gutting the endangered species act to rending national forest policy, the mainstream greens seem reinvigorated and have largely fought Bush to a standstill.

The greens have rightly erected barricades in Bush’s path, but in doing so risk descending into a kind of terminal hypocrisy. In joint press releases issued during Bush’s visit to Portland, the mainstream greens castigated Bush for trying to unravel decades of environmental laws and more recent rules enacted by Clinton, who they lauded as the greatest environmental president since Teddy Roosevelt. In fact, Bush merely wants to drive his logging trucks through the door that Clinton opened.

But the environmentalists should be wary. The fate of the western forests now depend almost entirely on the calculations of a few Democrats in the senate. But only a few short years ago, many of these very same senators traded their votes away and approved Clinton’s Salvage Logging Rider, a bill every bit as venal and destructive as the one now put forward by Bush. At the time, the DC enviro lobby largely bit their tongues. Now they are almost hyperventilating with their screams against Bush’s environmental villainy. The greens rewrite such history at their own peril.

In the end, big forest fires are simply part of the ecological landscape of the West. They’ve always been associated with these forests and always will be. But politicians will never talk honestly about fire. Instead, they exploit our primal fear of flames to shovel billions into the pockets of their political patrons. Each year Congress wastes nearly $3 billion in fighting forest fires. All to no avail. The blazes rarely go out before the rains of autumn.

There is one factor that does seem to play a key role in determining the intensity of forest fires: climate. Forest economist Randal O’Toole, director of the Thoreau Institute, examined rainfall data and acres burned by forest fires in the western states dating back to the 1920s. He found an exacting correlation between drought and forest fires.

"Numerous commentators have blamed the number of acres burned in recent years on increased fuels from past fire suppression, increased fuels from timber cutting, and environmentalist obstructions to fuel treatments," says O’Toole. "But a close look at the data reveal that the main factor responsible for fires today is drought. When examined on a decade-by-decade basis, drought is responsible for 98 percent of the variation in acres burned in each decade from the 1950s through the 1990s. Looking at individual years, 2002, 2000, and 1988 were the droughtiest years since 1960, and the three years when the most acres burned."

Those are hard facts. Still, I doubt that Bush will be declaring a holy war on global warming anytime soon.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature (Common Courage Press) and coeditor, with Alexander Cockburn, of The Politics of Anti-Semitism (AK Press). Both books will be published in October.

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