PORTLAND -- This year has been a devastating one for wildfires in the United States.
This comes as no surprise, given that the Forest Service's own studies and data
identify over 40 million acres of national forests are at high risk of catastrophic
fire and 26 million acres more at high risk of insect infestation and disease.
When this year's drought and dry lightning is combined
with so many trees and so much brush, wildfire disasters are inevitable. Forestry
and wildfire experts have seen this coming for years, and they have made those
concerns known both to the land-management agencies and to Congress. The stark
reality is that in order to deal with the millions of acres at risk, it is necessary
to use a chainsaw to treat them. According to the General Accounting Office, it
will be impossible to treat all these areas using non-mechanical means, such as
Unfortunately, Los Alamos proved the GAO's findings
to be correct. It is time that the Forest Service and all of the critics of timber
harvesting wake up and smell the smoke. The Forest Service must finalize the Cohesive
Fire Strategy, which was requested by Congress in response to the GAO report.
Unfortunately, the Clinton/Gore Administration pulled the draft strategy after
it was released to the public this spring.
The price tag and the use of chainsaws were too
much for the administration to support in an election year. It is time that the
agencies are allowed to submit budgets that address this catastrophic situation.
In addition to developing a long-range strategy, the Forest Service needs to re-examine
its reliance on a "hands off" policy as a way to manage forests, as evidenced
by the Clinton/Gore roadless area initiative.
Of the 54 million acres being considered for additional
protection under this initiative, 22 million acres were identified by the GAO
as at risk of catastrophic wildfires. The recent rash of fires demonstrate that
there are significant environmental consequences to wildlife, fish, water quality,
scenic values, air quality, recreation areas, and neighboring private lands resulting
from the "hands off" policy.
It is irresponsible of the Forest Service to advocate
deliberate neglect as a land management philosophy. It is critical that the public
get information not just on the number of acres burned, the number of houses destroyed
or the number of lives lost.
The administration needs to tell the public the
full cost of these fires: How many millions of acres of critical wildlife habitat
were lost, how many gallons of water were polluted, how many billions of board
feet were lost in smoke and ash, how many miles of fireline were constructed with
bulldozers in roadless areas?
The other question that needs to be addressed is how critical were roads to transporting
firefighting personnel, evacuating the public or acting as firelines. They must
provide this information in a timely manner so that the public can responsibly
weigh the policy alternatives for managing these important national forests.
Finally, the administration needs to stop using
our forests as election year pawns and listen to the resource professionals entrusted
with the management of these public treasures.
Note: Chris West is a professional forester and vice president of the Northwest
Forestry Association located in Portland, Oregon. Readers may address e-mail
to him at: firstname.lastname@example.org ].