Blame game sheds little light on fires

 

It was boring, made-for-C-SPAN stuff, a round of congressional testimony on June 12 by Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth on what his agency has named "The Process Predicament." The Forest Service has been hobbled, he said, by excessive environmental analysis requirements, management inefficiencies and a breakdown in "collaborative" public involvement. That, said Bosworth, had put 73 million acres of forest at risk of severe fire.

It might have been forgotten, but the next week, nearly a half-million acres of Arizona forest and 466 structures went up in smoke in the biggest fire in the state's history. That lent some dramatic oomph to Bosworth's message, and politicians seized on it as an example of the need for aggressive thinning of dense dog-hair forests. But cutting trees has become nearly impossible, Arizona Gov. Jane Hull, R, told The Arizona Republic: "Every time we start to do something like this, one of these extreme environmental groups will sue."

Hull's comments touched off another firestorm. Environmentalists shot back with a General Accounting Office report from last July, which stated that only about 1 percent of the Forest Service's planned "hazardous-fuels reduction" projects had been appealed and that none had brought on a lawsuit. On July 8, the Forest Service responded with its own hastily compiled report, which painted a very different picture: A hefty 48 percent of "mechanical treatments" of fire-prone forests planned for 2001 and the first half of 2002 were appealed; about 6 percent had been litigated.

So far, the debate has been a lot like dueling with flamethrowers: a lot of sizzle, but awfully short on precision. Nonetheless, several Western Republican senators - and even some prominent Democrats - are pushing to relax environmental restrictions so that thinning projects can go forward, even as important questions go unanswered about environmentalists' - and environmental regulations' - supposed role in hog-tying the hazardous-fuels reduction program.

Show me the data

Brian Segee, the appeals coordinator at the Center for Biological Diversity, says the Forest Service's claims of widespread appeals and lawsuits are misleading, because they include many controversial large-diameter, old-growth logging projects. "Everybody's saying thinning, but we feel we're fighting logging."

Both the GAO report and the more recent Forest Service report are slim on details, and although the Forest Service report is the latest word, the agency hasn't been able to provide enough data to independently verify its claims. What information has been made available by the agency's regional offices has raised more questions than it has answered - and that has raised some tempers on Capitol Hill.

In a July 25 letter to Bosworth, U.S. Reps. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., and Tom Udall, D-N.M., wrote, "To release such an inadequately supported report demonstrates a distressing lack of professionalism and raises serious questions about the agency's credibility."

The debate also raised questions about the Forest Service's commitment to thinning projects in the "wildland-urban interface," the ragged fringe between suburban backyards and the sagebrush and forest. Most environmental groups have long asserted that they don't oppose thinning in the interface. The National Fire Plan, released in 2001, identified the interface as particularly important, which seemed to set the stage to move forward with fire-hazard reduction efforts there.

But according to another GAO report, released this January, the Forest Service and other federal agencies have not even identified "high-risk communities," making it impossible to tell whether $796 million appropriated for hazardous fuels reduction "is targeted to the communities and other areas at highest risk."

Harv Forsgren, the Forest Service's Southwest regional forester, says that while last year's projects weren't primarily focused on the wildland-urban interface, the situation is changing. "This year, there's been a shift toward (the interface)," he says; about 48 percent of the acreage planned for treatment in the Southwest falls into the interface. "And there's been an overall encouragement at the national level for us to shift to about a 70 percent investment of these fuel treatment dollars into the interface."

Nationally, the Forest Service says that 57 percent of the acreage targeted for fuels-reduction projects this year is in the wildland-urban interface.

Getting to the bottom

Nonetheless, apparent disorder within the Forest Service - most notably its inability to provide many details about the projects it says were shanghaied - adds credence to environmentalists' argument that it's not the "process" that has hobbled forest thinning, but shortcomings within the agency itself. For evidence, they point to the number of appeals and lawsuits that have been upheld by review boards and judges.

The Center for Biological Diversity says that, by its count, about 50 percent of its appeals and 40 percent of its lawsuits have been successful - indicating that about half the agency's initial decisions failed to comply with environmental laws. Again, the Forest Service paints a different picture: Data provided by the agency's Northern Rockies region (where, according to the July 8 report, 100 percent of projects were appealed) show that 83 percent of the decisions appealed in 2001 were affirmed, or upheld; of the decisions appealed this year, about 67 percent were affirmed.

Forest Service staffers in Washington, D.C., say the agency will release a definitive list of appealed projects as this issue goes to press, but it won't include any information about whether those decisions were ultimately upheld.

Meanwhile in Congress, the push for more thinning is about to shift into overdrive. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., has already hitched a provision to a budget bill to clear the way for a controversial thinning project in his home state. And a coalition led by Senator Pete Domenici, R-N.M., vows to relax environmental regulations and move ahead with thinning nationwide as soon as Congress reconvenes in September (see story page 13). But while Domenici promises "a real debate on the floor," the lack of details about what really happened with thinning projects the past two years means the debate could be based more on hype than facts.

Matt Jenkins is assistant editor for High Country News.