Uncontrolled Burn: How Congress is Adding Fuel to the Western Wildfires

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As wildfires rage through woodland in the West, critics are questioning the  federal government’s role in protecting the National Forests. Recently,  President Bush proposed a $175 million increase in commercial timber sales on  public lands — a move that, along with a planned repeal of the “roadless  rule” established by former President Clinton, has many suspicious of where  the Bush administration’s true agenda lies.

Big forest fires make the news every summer. Last year, over 7 million acres of U.S. land burned during wildfire season. Many forest advocates believe that wildfires are a naturally occurring, healthy phenomenon and should, to some extent, be allowed to burn within certain limits.

In recent years, the National Forest Service, guided by Congress, has partly relied on commercial logging to address the problem of wildfires. This policy has critics like University of Montana economics chair Thomas Power up in arms.

“The argument is that significant expansion of Western logging will reduce fires,” Power says. “But from an economic point of view, to reduce the threat of fire, you have to remove the most flammable material, but that has no commercial value.” When an area is logged, he added, it is the least flammable material that is removed, in the form of “commercial logs.” What is left behind is the most flammable: small trees and brush. Often times, sections of forest canopy are removed, leading to drier, more burn-prone undergrowth.

“Doc” Partridge, a former professor of Forest Disease and Insect Problems at the University of Idaho, echoes those opinions, calling the administration’s pact with the timber industry “a pretext to go in and log.” According to Partridge, the timber companies’ removal of large-diameter trees will “actually increase the likelihood of fires. The proposed ‘thinning’ — a euphemism for logging — will also become another way that the taxpayer subsidizes the timber industry.”

It is this sentiment that has many researchers vexed by the government’s role in wildfire issues. The National Forest is supported entirely by U.S. tax dollars, and a significant portion of the bill for the nationwide fire-fighting effort is approved by Congress.

Tim Hermach, founder of the Native Forest Council, insists that the current administration be held accountable for the sustenance of the forests. “More than one hundred years ago, the great Republican conservationist President Teddy Roosevelt protected what came to be known as the National Forests from all further logging,” Hermach said. “Since then, however, Big Timber has bought its way into Congress and has clear-cut and logged over 40 million acres of these pristine national forests.”

While devoting the majority of its fire-fighting efforts to reliance on commercial logging, the National Forest Service has lagged behind in other areas of preparedness. In 1995, a federal commission on fire policy recommended that the NFS implement Fire Management Plans “for every burnable acre of public land,” according to Jonathan Oppenheimer of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. To date, 56 percent of National Forest land still lacks such a plan.

Recently, the NFS’ reaction to larger wildfires has been to invest massive amounts of money and resources into battling the blazes, with Congress picking up the tab. In July, the service funneled $4.5 million into fighting the Thirty Mile Fire in Washington state. According to Oppenheimer, the region lacked an approved Fire Management Plan, giving the Forest Service “little choice but to fight the fire with all available resources,” and without a realistic budget. As a result, taxpayers were saddled with the costs of a firefight which cost nearly $500 per acre.

“As long as Congress keeps writing blank checks, there will be little
incentive for these agencies to change the way they do business,” Oppenheimer said in a press release. “If Congress really wants to reform firefighting, they’ve got to stop throwing money at the fires.”

To make serious headway against the forest fire problem, many critics believe the logging industry should be held more accountable. “The timber industry is pretending to be concerned about forest fires,” Hermach says. “They believe the fire issue can still be used to justify even more logging, and to cover up the fact that their logging usually makes fires worse, not better.”

Evan Woodward is a writer with IPA Media, a project of the Institute for Public Accuracy.

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