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Liar, Liar Forests on Fire

Scores of people are dead, hundreds of thousands of acres are burned, 2,600 homes destroyed, with tens of thousand more threatened in California fires, and the toll is rising by the minute. It’s very scary and represents profound loss for the victims. So, under the guise of fire funding or firefighting, congressional negotiators quickly allocated $3 billion (the most ever allocated to a one-time firefighting budget) in the coming year to fight and prevent fire. Hundreds of millions of dollars are allocated specifically for suppression, thinning, threat reduction, and management–all fear-mongering, code words for cutting down our national forests.

California’s Fontana Pass and Grand Prix Fires have been blamed on arson. Still George W. Bush and those in the U.S. Congress who benefit from the timber industry’s chainsaw windfall, capitalize on people’s fear of fire and proclaim a need for suppression, thinning, threat reduction and management. They then grant enormous logging contracts to cut down trees in national forests where logging is otherwise illegal. The logging is not done in areas where lives and property would be spared, thinning small trees around homes, but rather in backcountry, valuable, old-growth forests.

According to Dr Richard A Minnich, Professor of Earth Science at the University of California at Riverside, an expert on the fire ecology of Mediterranean ecosystems in Southern California, “The Bush Administration’s Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HR 1904) for forest thinning in the western United States is scheduled for a vote at a time when southern California is undergoing a massive fire disaster. Yet this bill will give little benefit for fire and fuel hazard management in the southern California region . . .The bill is earmarked for federal lands exclusively.”

As forest fires rage, so does the debate about how best to suppress fire, reduce its threat and manage our forests. And the answer is — DON’T! Don’t “manage” our public forests — and forest fires will be M-I-N-I-M-I-Z-E-D. Since George W. Bush and the timber hungry in the U.S. Congress seem incapable of spelling, allow us to spell it out: Stop timbering our forests and the fires therein will play the role that Mother Nature and God intended them to play — a vital role of targeted renewal and replacement — not one of total devastation as we are seeing in the fires raging in southern California today. There is no forest management plan that does the job as efficiently or effectively as the great forces of nature.

Fire, just like insects and disease, are a natural and beneficial part of forest ecosystems and watersheds. Without these natural processes the forest ecosystems quickly degrade. Excessive logging removes and reduces cooling shade adding to the hotter, drier forests along with logging debris creating a more flammable forest. Current “forest management” practices, road building and development cause forest fires to rage for hundreds of miles.

The Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project said in a report to the U.S. Congress that timber harvests have increased fire severity more than any other recent human activity. Logging, especially clear cutting, can change the fire climate so that fires start more easily, spread faster, further, and burn hotter causing much more devastation than a fire ignited and burned under natural conditions. If we stop the logging and stop building fire prone developments, we minimize the loss of lives and property suffered by people in fires.

As long as the people of America let politicians, timber executives, and the Forest Service get away with it – it will not stop. Those corporations that profit will continue to lie, cheat and steal to continue to make more money from our losses. Just like big tobacco.

There has never been an honest and fully-costed accounting for public land management involving the extraction, sale, or lease of publicly owned natural resources: land, air, soil and water, not even for the trees. The Forest Service fails to give one penny of value in its inventory accounting to the trees themselves. A $1.00 seedling can grow into a 500-year-old tree. If you put $1.00 in the bank at 6% interest for 500 years, that $1.00 would grow with compounding and interest to 4.5 trillion dollars. A 500-year-old tree is simply not replaceable by five or six seedlings, the way 4.5 trillion dollars are not replaceable by five or six $1.00 bills.

The Forest Service gives away our trees to multinational corporations to liquidate for free, simultaneously asking taxpayers to subsidize those corporations by paying for the roads and infrastructure necessary to cut down our trees. This government give-away to a few, greedy corporations costs taxpayers billions of dollars annually and destroys the soil, air and water that only intact forests can provide. In addition, this may cost citizens and taxpayers trillions of dollars in lost and damaged publicly owned land and property assets. The Forest Service does not begin to assess the very real human health cost of dirty air, soil, and water. It’s a shameless shakedown of the American taxpayer.

Tim Hermach, co-author of this article, was recently trapped in a forest fire that jeopardized his life and the lives of his wife, parents, and two young sons. He knows the gut-wrenching fear that fire can evoke. A raging forest fire came within 50 yards of his family’s campsite at Davis Lake, Oregon. For the past forty years Tim has been making the same camping trip, an earlier time when this forest did not have hundreds of miles of roads channeling winds through an ever hotter and drier forest. Years of clear cutting, logging, and fire suppression have opened vast acreages to the hot sun and cut out the big, thick, fire-resistant Ponderosa pine, leaving the ecosystem in chaos.

Tim strongly opposes forest “thinning,” because both the logging industry and the Forest Service have a long, dishonest, track record. His opposition is strong even after a fire spoiled his family’s summer vacation and put their lives at risk. The Davis Lake fire burned in a national forest that had already been heavily logged. Rampant cutting and decades of fire suppression have turned this area, and much of the Deschutes National Forest, into a tinderbox of smaller trees and coarse woody debris. Go to our Web site ( ) and see aerial photographs of the Deschutes and other national forests today. They are a patchwork of clear cuts and usually look like a war zone.

Those who claim to protect national forests like this by “managing” them, have turned paradise into Pandora’s box — make that Pandora’s tinderbox. Put simply: Logging does not stop fire, as a group of scientists recently confirmed in a study that looked at the impact of “thinning” on 250 forest fires. Logging increases the risk and occurrence of forest fires. Yet more logging is exactly what timber corporations, President Bush and the Forest Service claim will stop forest fires.

Logging called for in the Bush administration’s laughably named Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HR 1904) is the same dishonest logging that created the conditions that made the Davis Lake fire and others across the nation so frightening. They call it thinning, fire-risk reduction, meadow restoration, or good management, but it all adds up to the same old theft and destruction of America’s most precious natural treasures and life-support system: our national forests and watersheds. Thanks to the Bush administration’s Healthy Forests Restoration Act, American taxpayers will continue to subsidize the destruction of what little is left of our nation’s forests, even those that are publicly owned.

It is the same old dirty formula that has made corporate robber barons and their political lackeys rich for more than a hundred years. The only difference is that, today, they hide behind their clever rhetoric and exploit the myth of Smokey Bear and our fear of fire. If the intent is to seek the most environmentally sound and cost effective means to reduce the fuel hazard and fire risk they created, then the Forest Service should be instructed, fully funded, and closely monitored. They should implement prescribed burning and manual, intensive labor in underbrush removal, without commercial logging. They should be enabled, funded, and watched while assisting homeowners in the removal of small trees in residential areas. The long-term goal for forests should be full restoration of ecological processes, including fire — Mother Nature style.

Timothy G. Hermach is the President of the Native Forest Council in Eugene, Oregon. Karyn Strickler is a writer and political activist.

They can be reached at: zerocut1@forestcouncil.org

Copyright Timothy G. Hermach and Karyn Strickler.

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