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Wildfires: Focus on Defensible Space, Not Large Scale Logging

It seems both major parties can be sadly misinformed about forests and fires. The president recently promoted logging as a way to curb fires even though studies have clearly shown it to be ineffective. Now two western Senators, Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., and Steve Daines, R-Mont., intend to introduce legislation to further Trump’s agenda.

The most comprehensive scientific analysis conducted on the issue of forest management and fire intensity found that forests with the fewest environmental protections and the most logging actually tended to burn much more intensely, not less. For instance, the Camp Fire which destroyed the town of Paradise, Calif., began in an area that had burned a mere ten years before and was then salvage logged.

Research on the “home ignition zone” by Dr. Jack Cohen of the U.S. Forest Service’s Fire Science Laboratory makes clear that the only strategy that consistently works for reducing fire impacts to human habitation, is to focus on the land within 100 feet of houses, not logging distant forests.

Defensible space

Reducing flammability within this 100-foot “defensible space” involves basic precautions such as fire-resistant roofing, pruning branches and small trees, and keeping gutters clear of dry leaves and needles. Also keep in mind that more than half of all the acreage that recently burned in the West occurred in non-forest vegetation like chaparral, sagebrush, and grasslands.

But it’s always the same prescription for our National Forests and Bureau of Land Management lands: We need more stumps. Stumps for timber, stumps for wildlife management, stumps for restoration, and now stumps for fire management. The underlying consistency behind these rationalizations is the habitual dismissal of the critical importance of old and dead trees, wilderness conditions, natural disturbances, and limited roads to healthy forests.

In this case, both the Dec. 21 Executive Order (Federal Register Jan. 7, 2019) – that expedited logging on an area of our public lands larger than the entire state of Massachusetts – and now the Feinstein-Daines bill, use a tragedy to push the same thing that would be pushed even if the tragedy didn’t happen. Disregarded are fire drivers such as previous logging and extreme weather events. Not a peep about defensible space. No, instead come up with ‘more stumps!’

Pre-empting lawsuits

And this benighted approach to forests gets even worse. To expedite logging, Daines and Feinstein plan to legislatively slow or stop so-called “frivolous” lawsuits, in effect locking the public out of management decisions on our public lands. Whenever politicians feel compelled to pre-emptively lock the public out of our day in court, it’s a sure tell that something is rotten.

They must know that their proposal won’t withstand scrutiny in any court worth its name. Here’s a message to Daines and all those who think like him: Americans involved in legal efforts to stop the desecration of our public lands and their wildlife are not frivolous. According to you, we “frivolous” taxpayers get to subsidize the degradation and destruction of our precious homelands, we just don’t get to have a real say in it.

We do need new legislation, but not the toxic brew Feinstein and Daines are cooking up. We need legislation and policies that free the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management from the internal and external pressures that promote and prioritize commercial logging and other exploitation. The focus must be on real protection, not legislation that exacerbates both the pressures and the underlying fire problem. Congress needs to drop this disastrous bill and instead facilitate protection of the “defensible space” around homes and development. And then pass legislation that puts an end to the ongoing logging-grazing-drilling-mining horror show on our public lands once and for all.

Steven Krichbaum, PhD, conservation biologist, forest protection activist for 30 years with grassroots groups. He lives in Staunton, Virginia.

 

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