Throughout his visit to the Biscuit fire site, the President also lauded the Administration's new initiative which deals
with the problem, called Healthy Forests.
Their claim is that this initiative will help to prevent wildfires and build more durable communities by attacking the
problem on two primary fronts:
During his visit, the President commented on the recent legislation to limit appeals against fuel reduction
projects in the Black Hills Forest of South Dakota, saying:
First, reduce unnecessary regulatory obstacles that hinder active forest management - via disallowing lawsuits and
appeals in cases where the risk is deemed sufficient, so that a defensible boundary may be created around
severely threatened populated areas .
- Second, work with Congress to expedite procedures for forest thinning and restoration projects -
via a more aggressive "mechanical thinning" policy.
"My view is, if it's good enough for that part of South Dakota, it's good enough for Oregon"
This type of generalization may actually serve to hinder the administration's efforts more than
help them. We've seen this administration's environmental proposals defeated before, after all. It's certainly clear
even to the casual observer that actions must be taken to deal with wildfires, and that nature is not waiting
around for us to come up with the ultimate solution. It's also a fact that the forests and wilderness areas of the
western US are one of it's finest resources; much beloved, and worthy of a good fight to protect them. Common sense, as
advocated by the President, is fine - even when studying complex systems - but it's no substitute for meticulous
science, careful analysis, and solid technology.
But, we need solutions now.
Many people around the world are asking how and why wildfires have become so bad of late. The situation has
progressively worsened during the last few years, and every year brings new debate and blame
passing. While both sides acknowledge that the problems are varied and complex, the real monster is drought. Drought which has
descended upon the US like a great, red blight
and doesn't appear to be leaving anytime soon. This problem has much less to do with
mismanagement and contentious legal maneuvering than it has to do with global warming and climate change.
The National Climactic and Data Center recently published
their Climate of 2002 - Wildfire Season Summary, which provides rich data and graphs clearly
demonstrating the scope and severity of this years fire season, along with comparisons to other recent years, and the
10-year average. There's little doubt that severe drought is causing fires, not just in the US, but all over the
Nevertheless, if we are to believe the Bush Administration, and the people who own homes and property in threatened
areas, U.S. fire policy isn't cutting it,
and the fault lies with bad management
and too much litigation and navel-contemplation, which prevent protection plans from being implemented.
The environmentalists, on the other hand, assert that the Forest Service is cooking the books, and in fact there are very few protests
against reasonable and careful plans to reduce undergrowth and protect the natural forest.
Considering what to do about the forest should imply a long-term plan, and this has typically been the aim and effort of
forest management agencies. Today's forests, however, must also be considered from the current perspective. This
is because of the many other factors which currently affect their environment besides dry weather and overgrowth, such
as livestock management, and public access.
Historically, the situation was not always so dire. Records from the
1800's and early 20th century describe US forests with tall, thick trees. These "old-growth"
forests of yesteryear could tolerate, and even thrived upon fire to hold down undergrowth. The trees were tall and
thick enough to withstand the heat, and offered few low-hanging branches to carry the flames of a groundfire into the
The growth and needs of the early to mid 20th century caused most of these ancient and very stable
environments to be harvested, and replanted. It has therefore been the custodial policy of
the Forest Service during the last century to extinguish all fires, in the long-term effort to restore the forests of
old, and preserve the resources both for posterity and profit. However admirable this policy has been, the
implementation did not have the funding or research required to make it work.
The big question, then, is how to pay for the inevitable increased costs associated with the protection of America's
wilderness and national parks. Today the Forest Service receives, essentially, a "blank check" from
Congress for suppression of wildfire, but the total cost of suppression, even during the worst year ever for wildfire,
does not compare with the cost of a careful thinning and protection plan which encompasses all of the lands in need of
it. A study in Oregon calculates the cost of proper
thinning to be some $1685 per acre, amounting to nearly 3 billion dollars just to take care of a single large
wilderness area there. Such sums do not grow on trees. Furthermore, these costs are perennial, until such a
time as the trees are mature enough to tolerate controlled burning, which is less expensive than annual weedings.
The Administration's plan, therefore, proposes to sell the lumber which is extracted in a thinning effort, in order to
supplement the cost of the thinning. In this way the forest protects itself, they argue, and the American taxpayer
needn't pony up so much, to protect our heritage for our children and grandchildren. At first glance, such a plan seems
reasonable - especially at a time when our taxes are clearly earmarked for other purposes. However, the established
techniques for logging and timber sales will surely need to be improved if we are to preserve and conserve these
resources in best possible form. Today's practice, wherein only the largest and most valuable trees are taken, leaving
thousands of slash piles must be improved. The lumber
companies must be made to "take the good with the bad", and properly dispose of slash, if the thinning process is to
What's the right answer, then?
Wildfires have been with us since the beginning of time. While it was clearly a mistake to suppress them completely,
one doesn't need to be
The Lorax or
Smokey the Bear
to understand the delicate balance between destructive fires which consume all life and destroy the soil, and careful,
consistent thinning, along with controlled burning where appropriate, to reduce the hazards and protect property.
Wildfires are at an all-time high
around the world right now, but dealing with them, and
preventing them, remains a complex and localized problem.
In light of these opposing contentions, we might ask what comprises a reasonable and careful plan for wildfire
prevention. In the next article, I'll start to explore some of problems and solutions
which are perceived and proposed in the fight against wildfires, including those which will surely be found among the
intelligent commentary to this article. Despite all of the rhetoric, good science has been applied to the problem, and
there are good working solutions to be found. These solutions balance the urgency of the threat with the meticulousness
of careful study, and apply the appropriate control methods to each individual environment.