President's Plan Sees Forests and Trees
In 1995, a late-winter storm laid waste to hundreds of thousands of
trees in a 35,000-acre area of the Six Rivers National Forest in
California. Trees lay strewn across the forest floor, creating
conditions particularly ripe for the kind of uncontrollable,
unnaturally hot fires that threaten communities and lives.
Officials charged with managing the forests at Six Rivers knew what
had to be done. The dead trees had to be removed and the forest
floor cleared-all before fire season began.
But they needed permission from Washington first, so they submitted
various options to their superiors to accomplish this, as is
required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Then,
they waited while courts and others plowed through challenges to
every part of their plans. By the time forest officials won
approval for what was-for them-a no-brainer, they managed to clear
just 1,600 acres before disaster struck.
Before it was over, 125,000 acres had burned, and $70 million had
been spent to contain the fires. On top of it all, the U.S. Forest
Service had to go back to the drawing board and create still more
plans for improving the forest because, of course, the fire had
changed the land conditions.
The intent of NEPA-to ensure forests aren't ripped apart
indiscriminately with no concern for environmental fallout-is a
good one. But in practice, its requirements have become tools used
to prevent plans from being enacted until they are rendered moot by
the onset of the fires or disease that managers sought to avoid.
These shackles on sound forest management have allowed America's
forests and rangelands to reach "a crisis of ecological health,"
according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Last year alone, wildfires burned more than 7 million acres of
public and private lands-an area larger than Rhode Island and
Maryland combined. These fires claimed the lives of 21
firefighters, destroyed thousands of structures and forced tens of
thousands of people to evacuate their homes. The two-headed monster
forest officials now confront-forests with excessive "loads" of
dead trees and other brush and forests deteriorating because of
disease and insects-now consumes 190 million acres of public land,
an area twice the size of California.
Communities such as Flagstaff, Ariz., and Klamath Falls, Ore., no
longer can afford to have sound forest management plans stifled by
extremists and their frivolous challenges until fire season arrives
and it's too late to help. That's the focus of President Bush's
proposed Healthy Forests Initiative, embodied in the Healthy
Forests Restoration Act of 2003 to be taken up this week (May
12-16) in the House.
The initiative would make it easier for forest managers to "thin"
forests-fell and remove diseased or dead trees-to perform
"prescribed burns," in which small, controllable fires are set to
prevent unwieldy conflagrations, and to otherwise treat forests
against insect and disease infestation.
It would do so by streamlining the administrative appeals and court
challenges to fire-prevention strategies on up to 20 million acres
of forest near residential communities, municipal water supplies,
areas with threatened or endangered species and areas where trees
are infected with certain insects. Forest Service officials
estimate they spend 40 percent of their time and $250 million per
year assembling multiple plans for projects when they know what is
needed, all to fulfill the requirements of NEPA.
The bill would allow forest managers to develop one plan for public
comment rather than allowing the public to weigh in on the universe
of options available. And on those 20 million acres most in need of
treatment, it would remove the option of doing nothing-a popular
one among the hard green left and one required by law now to be
among the top options.
It's time we recognize that times have changed with respect to our
forests. Our burgeoning population means more of us live near
forests and rangelands than ever before. Leaving the forests alone
may sound like the best environmental practice, and it may have
been 100 or more years ago when the occasional natural burn could
correct overgrowth without threatening communities. Now,
circumstances demand we control the elements, and thankfully, we
have the technology and know-how to do so.
But how we do so must be based on what's best for the forests and
the people who live around them. And those decisions are best made
by those who have devoted their lives to the study of these
ecosystems and not to extremists who insist that to touch a forest
is to defile it.
Coon is an energy and environment analyst at The
Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org),
a Washington-based public policy research institute.