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Forest Reforms in the Crossfire

 

DATE: June 9, 2005

BACKGROUND: President Bush's Healthy Forests Initiative, a blueprint for protecting national forests from catastrophic fire, and the 2003 Healthy Forests Restoration Act were supposed to close a chapter on a decade of raging, devastating fires. The new reforms promised to change the old, outdated laws that have restricted logging, building up dense fuel loads over the years and creating lethal fire conditions. They were to limit activist groups' endless appeals and frivolous lawsuits that have halted critical, time-sensitive thinning projects. They also were to fast-track treatment of forests by eliminating the time-consuming environmental review process for those thinning projects that do not threaten the environment.  But by all accounts, we're not out of the woods yet.  Attempts at reform to shift priority to fire prevention are being challenged by a small yet fanatical group of eco-activist groups who argue thinning projects kill habitat and species.

TEN SECOND RESPONSE: A small yet fanatical group of eco-activist groups who argue that forest thinning projects kill habitat and species are challenging efforts to prevent forest fires.

THIRTY SECOND RESPONSE: Washington's recent reforms will not end dangerous wildfires by themselves, but they do provide some valuable tools to safely manage America's national forests at greatest risk. However, a small number of powerful environmental groups, through desperate abuse of the litigation system, are doing a grave disservice to the health of our forests. Their rabid opposition to almost any treatment of any kind also threatens human life and wildlife.

DISCUSSION:

On July 1, the Forest Service will celebrate its 100-year anniversary and will, no doubt, commemorate the past century's vast forest growth and reforestation throughout many parts of the nation. But before we uncork too many bottles of bubbly, we should be cognizant of the enormous challenges facing the Forest Service in controlling worsening catastrophic summer wildfires that destroy homes, wildlife, and human life.

President Bush's Healthy Forests Initiative, a blueprint for protecting national forests from catastrophic fire, and the 2003 Healthy Forests Restoration Act were supposed to close a chapter on a decade of raging, devastating fires. The new reforms promised to change the old, outdated laws that have restricted logging, building up dense fuel loads over the years and creating lethal fire conditions. They were to limit activist groups' endless appeals and frivolous lawsuits that have halted critical, time-sensitive thinning projects. They also were to fast-track treatment of forests by eliminating the time-consuming environmental review process for those thinning projects that do not threaten the environment.

But by all accounts, we're not out of the woods yet. Attempts at reform to shift priority to fire prevention are being challenged by a small yet fanatical group of eco-activist groups who argue thinning projects kill habitat and species.

Today, more acres of forests blanket this nation than past decades1 (we grow more than we cut), supporting vast amounts of wildlife habitat and species once threatened by extinction.2 But the steady rise in forestland over the years also places them at enormous risk for fire. Over the past five years, wildfires have become more severe and widespread,3 harming human life, homes, air and water quality, and of course, wildlife.

The population of the northern spotted owl in the Northwest, for example, has declined despite a rise in the number of old growth forests and habitat. A new study by scientists at the Forest Service finds that wildfires are among the possible reasons for the endangered owl's waning numbers. Fires, the report concludes, have been a greater threat than logging projects.4

Granted, it will take time to see the effects of the Act's and Initiative's new reforms. But in the meantime, activists' challenges to these measures have brought crucial thinning in high-risk forests to a standstill, threatening to ignite another season of unmanageable fires.

In one case still pending, anti-logging organizations are suing the Administration for reforms that would expedite thinning projects by simplifying forest management plans. Plans are lengthy documents that outline how a national forest is to be cared for including procedures for harvesting, habitat, and recreational use. Current requirements are unwieldy, taking seven to ten years to complete and deterring local forest managers from the job of managing the forests.

The new regulations, which are widely supported by community groups who feel the reforms would provide better protection from fire, make it easier for forest managers to revise plans as they receive new information on the forests. It cuts the plans' preparation time to two to three years, reduces costs, better utilizes new scientific findings on critical habitat, and enables officials to better focus on fire prevention.

But a coalition of enviro groups, extreme in their objective to ban thinning projects,5 claim the new rules cut corners on protecting forests' wildlife and discourage public input. The case was filed with the U.S. District Court in San Francisco and means months, perhaps years, of delay in treating high-risk forests.

Washington's recent reforms are not the silver lining to ending dangerous wildfires. But they do provide some valuable tools to safely manage America's national forests at greatest risk. The small number of powerful environmental groups, through desperate abuse of the litigation system, are doing a grave disservice to the health of our forests. Their rabid opposition to almost any treatment of any kind threatens human life and wildlife.



by Dana Joel Gattuso

Contact the author at: 202-543-4110

The National Center for Public Policy Research
501 Capitol Court, N.E.
Washington, D.C. 20002




Footnotes:

1 See data in USDA Forest Service, Land Areas of the National Forest System, at http://www.fs.fed.us/land/staff.

2 Examples of species that have dramatically rebound in recent years are the coyote, bald eagle, moose, black bear, buffalo, and many others.

3 See the National Interagency Fire Center, "Wildland Fire Statistics," at http://www.nifc.gov/stats/wildlandfirestats.html.

4 Jeff Barnard, "Old Growth Up, Spotted Owl Numbers Down," Environmental News Network, April 20, 2005. Also, see Land Letter, Short Takes, "Northwest Has Gained 600,000 Acres of Older Trees in the Last Decade," April 21, 2005.

5 Most of the plaintiffs in the case also sued the Clinton Administration in 2000 over its attempts to make it more difficult for environmentalists to challenge the Forest Service in court, even though most other environmental groups supported the reforms. See Dan Berman, "Second Enviro Coalition Challenges New Planning Rule," Greenwire, March 31, 2005.

 


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