The War on Wildfire

by Kathie Durbin

To wage war on wildfire, President Bush convinced Congress to help him change the rules of forest management. Are we better off now?

 

In the tinder-dry summer of 2003, as President George W. Bush’s handlers scouted likely venues for him to tout his Healthy Forests Restoration Act, they seized on Central Oregon’s Metolius River Basin as the perfect backdrop.

Why the Metolius? For starters, the basin, which lies between the High Cascades and the steep fault scarp of Green Ridge, occupies a unique place in the hearts of Oregonians. Its ruddy-barked ponderosa pines, visible along the state highway over Santiam Pass, announce the transition from the west side of the Cascades to central Oregon’s drier climate. Thousands make regular pilgrimages here, to cast a fly in the Metolius River, which springs cold and clear from the base of Black Butte, to camp beneath the pines, or to hike cliff-hugging trails above the river.

But by 2003, the basin was in a precarious position. A severe storm in the winter of 2001 had bent and broken hundreds of thousands of conifers. When summer arrived, the green pine stands were mottled with the red needles of dying trees. "It was ugly and it was scary," says Bill Anthony, Sisters District ranger on the Deschutes National Forest. "In the spring of 2001, the only thing (local residents) wanted to know was, ‘What are we going to do about the broken trees?’ "

The following year, the 4,200-acre Cache Mountain Fire forced the evacuation of the nearby upscale resort community of Black Butte Ranch, jumping a road and claiming two houses before it was contained. In 2003, the woods were dangerously dry again.

By then, residents of Black Butte Ranch, Sisters and the small community of Camp Sherman had been clamoring for two years to get the Forest Service to reduce the wildfire threat by thinning the basin’s crowded pine stands and burning the undergrowth. They had even dug into their own pockets to help pay for demonstration projects to test public acceptance of fuel-reduction techniques.

For all those reasons, the Metolius seemed like the ideal place for President Bush to promote his bill, which was hitting resistance in the Senate. Already, under its 2002 Healthy Forests Initiative, the administration had changed the rules on public comment, appeals and environmental review in order to fast-track forest-thinning projects. With the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, the president was asking Congress for even more discretion to shortcut environmental analysis of "forest health" projects and speed judicial review.

But just days before the scheduled visit, two fires broke out in the nearby Cascades, forcing the Bush entourage to relocate to Redmond, Ore. There, Bush delivered his message: Only extraordinary means, he said, could avert disaster in the woods. At the same time, he spoke of the need for collaboration, singling out a local nonprofit group, Friends of the Metolius, as a model of "the kind of initiative we like and want."

"What we need," Bush declared, "is cooperation, not confrontation."

Thanks to the efforts of a handful of Senate Democrats, including Ron Wyden of Oregon and Dianne Feinstein of California, the Healthy Forests Restoration Act that Bush signed into law in December 2003 was less extreme than some conservationists had feared. The act has given some communities real clout in helping design fuel-reduction projects on federal land.

But the cooperation that Bush had called for was already happening. A trip to the Metolius would have given the president a look at a truly collaborative process — before he changed all the rules.

Building trust

Deschutes National Forest managers have learned the hard way to tread lightly in the Metolius Basin.

The residents of Sisters, Black Butte Ranch and Camp Sherman, a vocal and politically well-connected bunch, have kept vigil over these pines for decades. In the early 1980s, when they learned that the Forest Service planned to log the basin’s old-growth ponderosa pines, they formed the Little Buck Consensus Group and fought the proposal for a year and a half. What the agency had envisioned as a 10 million-board-foot old-growth clear-cut dwindled to an 800,000 board-foot thinning sale.

In 1989, the Forest Service developed a Metolius recreation plan that called for more campgrounds, plus footbridges, viewing platforms, and 200 miles of mountain bike trails. Locals — now organized as the Friends of the Metolius — opposed the recreation plan, which threatened to draw hordes of visitors and change the basin’s rustic character. They also opposed the continued clear-cutting of old-growth ponderosa pines. They went straight to Congress. In response, the entire seven-member Oregon delegation, Republicans and Democrats alike, pressured then-Forest Service Chief F. Dale Robertson. Within weeks, the plan was dead.

The Friends of the Metolius had other ideas as well: a Metolius National Conservation Area, a shift from clear-cutting to selective logging, and sharply reduced timber harvests. They even hired a forester to work with the agency on the details of creating a conservation area.

Oregon’s congressional delegation again leaned on the agency. When the Deschutes forest plan finally came out in 1992, it designated an 86,000-acre Metolius Conservation Area, to be managed for clean water, scenic views, and forest protection and restoration. Forestwide, the plan projected a 25 percent drop in timber sales during the 1990s, in part because a new timber inventory revealed that 40 percent fewer old-growth ponderosas remained than previously thought. For years, the Forest Service had been high-grading the Deschutes, taking the biggest, most valuable trees. Now, the bill had come due.

After 1992, the Forest Service took a hands-off approach to the Metolius. When Bill Anthony arrived from Colorado, his first trip was to the basin. "I quickly determined that they didn’t really want the Forest Service there," he says.

 

But like so much of the pine forest east of the Cascades, the Deschutes was unraveling from a century of logging and fire suppression. In the crowded forest, nutrient-starved trees were increasingly vulnerable to pests like the mountain pine beetle; the ground was littered with fuel. "We were seeing more and more old-growth ponderosa pine, larch and Douglas fir dying," says Greg McClarren, then a Deschutes forest spokesman, now an active member of Friends of the Metolius.

Leaving the forests alone was no longer an option.

After the ice storm of 2001, Friends of the Metolius approached the Forest Service with a new plan — this time for aggressive restoration. They called it the Metolius Heritage Forest Demonstration Project.

At first, forest managers didn’t believe the group was serious. Then, its members contributed $50,000 toward the costs of preparing an environmental assessment and carrying out a pilot project. The project covered 11 separate plots, ranging in size from three to eight acres. Some were thinned by hand, others by machine. One plot was managed to restore western larch, which has nearly disappeared from the Metolius; another, called the "Turn of the Century Forest," was opened up to resemble photos of the forest from 100 years ago.

"We had to shift gears," Anthony says. "We were happy to do fuel reduction in the other parts of the Deschutes National Forest. But we had kept our hands off the Metolius. All of a sudden, we couldn’t go fast enough."

Friends of the Metolius wanted to get people used to the sight of scorched trunks, small stumps and heaps of slash. Friends board member Pete Schay, who retired to the Metolius with his wife a few years ago, says that for area residents, trust of the Forest Service and acceptance of the need for major management changes have come only gradually. "At first, people were skeptical. Some who had no concept of forest management thought it was awful," he says. "But I’ve noticed a shift in people’s attitude. (The demonstration project) was an educational experience, but a very costly one."

It was a success, however, and that helped the Forest Service win local support for a more ambitious plan, which will thin about three-quarters of a 17,000-acre area of the basin over five to 10 years. Although the Blue Mountain Biodiversity Project appealed the project, the group agreed not to sue to stop it.

Unintended consequences

In testimony during congressional debate about the Healthy Forests Restoration Act in August 2003, Andy Stahl, director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, cited the Metolius Basin process as a model of collaboration. But if collaboration was the goal, he said, Healthy Forests would backfire, because short-circuiting public involvement would prove to be a self-defeating strategy.

"No matter how ecologically meritorious, forest restoration projects will not succeed unless the public owners of national forests concur," Stahl said.

From the beginning, conservationists suspected that the real purpose of the Healthy Forests campaign was to open Western forests, including the remote backcountry, to the logging of large old trees. They had been down that road before, with the 1995 salvage-logging rider, which exempted even large live-tree sales from appeals.

The Bush administration justified its new policies as necessary to prevent massive wildfires like the one that swept through Southern California’s San Bernardino National Forest in October 2003. But critics said the Healthy Forests Restoration Act was written so broadly that it fairly begged to be abused.

Sens. Feinstein and Wyden, working with conservationists, won changes in the final bill that restrict where logging can occur and give some protection to old-growth stands. They also inserted a requirement that half the money appropriated for forest-thinning projects and prescribed burns be spent in municipal watersheds and near communities in the "wildland-urban interface."

Nonetheless, some of the critics’ worst fears have come to pass.

The nastiest confrontation came in Montana last September, after the Bitterroot National Forest proposed logging nearly 4,000 acres along the East Fork of the Bitterroot River. Much of the forest was old growth, inhabited by elk, bighorn sheep, moose, bear, wolves, bull trout and other imperiled species. The public meetings on the project were few and poorly attended.

When the public did catch wind of the Middle East Fork Project, the reaction was fierce: Of 10,000 comments, 98 percent opposed it. No matter: Between April and August, during the public comment period and prior to any official decision, the Forest Service spent nearly $162,000 marking trees for cutting. An agency spokeswoman said the Forest Service wanted to move quickly once the project was approved.

Bitterroot Forest Supervisor Dave Bull says his staff went out of its way to address concerns from the public, and studied a "citizens’ alternative" produced by a coalition of environmental groups. He even brought in a mediator, he says, but after two weeks of interviews, he concluded that the chances of finding common ground were "zero."

In his final record of decision, released in late March, Bull deferred or postponed about a quarter of the original project. The forest still plans to log 2,900 acres, including some very large trees. Bull says the trees are dead, the victims of bark beetles, and that the money they bring in will help pay for thinning and fuels reduction elsewhere. Native Forest Network Director Matthew Koehler says the sales include "some of the last, best remaining pockets of old growth up the East Fork."

Similar fights have flared up in New Mexico. On the Santa Fe National Forest, managers proposed a project under the Healthy Forests Initiative that would have "treated" close to 1,000 acres, including trees up to three feet in diameter. The project was so egregious that the Forest Service quickly withdrew it after the environmental group Forest Guardians raised questions about its legitimacy as a forest health project.

"I’ll be honest with you, that one slipped through the cracks," says the forest’s fuels specialist, Tom Johnston. "That project is gone," he adds, and while it may return as a timber sale, "it will certainly never be a fuels project."

 

Forest Guardians has also sent the agency back to the drawing board on two projects proposed under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act. In one case, the Cibola National Forest proposed logging and burning on 13,000 acres of sparsely populated backcountry. In the other, the Lincoln National Forest wanted to lift protections for the threatened Mexican spotted owl. In each case, Forest Guardians filed a "pre-decisional objection," established under the law as an alternative to appeals, and Forest Service higher-ups agreed that there were issues that needed to be addressed.

Environmentalists have also won out in the courts. Under the Healthy Forests Initiative, the Forest Service expanded the use of the "categorical exclusion" — a loophole allowed under the National Environmental Policy Act that allows agencies to undertake certain projects with minimal environmental review and no public comment. The agency also took away citizens’ rights to appeal these projects.

But last September, in a case brought by a California environmental group, U.S. District Judge James Singleton ruled that the administration had gone too far when it denied citizens the right to appeal categorical exclusion projects. All projects must be opened to public comment for 30 days, he said, and subject to appeal for 45 days (HCN, 10/31/05: Forest Service tries to teach greens a lesson). The Forest Service, which is appealing the ruling, says the decision delayed or foreclosed 723 projects, covering over 1 million acres.

"These projects under Healthy Forests are actually leading to more gridlock problems," says Bryan Bird, Southwest forests program director for Forest Guardians. It’s unfortunate, he adds, because in some cases, collaboration is working in spite of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act. "It’s more creative, more natural and organic than what the Bush administration has tried to force on us."

On the cutting edge

Despite the acrimony over Healthy Forests, the Bush administration estimates that 15 million acres of federal land have been treated to reduce fuels since 2000. From the Idaho Panhandle to New Mexico, and from Washington to Southern California, citizens are working with federal agencies to protect their homes and communities from catastrophic wildfire. Thinning projects now dominate the Forest Service’s revenue base and mission, at least in the Northwest, says Rex Holloway, who retired in December as spokesman for the agency’s regional office.

But the majority of that work has been done with full environmental review and public input. It’s been done, in other words, under the old rules.

As evidence of the success of Healthy Forests, Deputy Undersecretary of Agriculture David Tenny points to the steady increase in acres treated nationwide, from 2.3 million acres in 2002 to 4.3 million acres last year. By focusing resources on forest health, "we have become much more successful at treating more acres," he says. "We give land managers a variety of tools, set expectations of what we want to accomplish, and let them decide what the most appropriate tools are."

But Tenny acknowledges that the Healthy Forests Restoration Act hasn’t "come online" yet, and that the upturn in forest treatment really dates to before the Healthy Forests Initiative. Agriculture Department spokesman Rick Alexander says the expanded NEPA authorities under the Healthy Forests Initiative and Act account for only 8 percent of the total forest treatment for 2005 and 2006.

The fact is that most forest fuel-reduction projects are not controversial at all. Very few have been challenged in court, as a 2003 Government Accountability Office report confirmed. Where controversy erupts, it is almost always over proposals to log large, live trees under the pretense of improving forest health.

"There are a lot of things we can all agree on," says Emily Platt, executive director of the Gifford Pinchot Alliance. The Portland-based organization has formed a partnership with the Forest Service and logging companies and mills in Washington’s Lewis County to offer thinning sales on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest (HCN, 9/27/04: Life After Old Growth).

The Pinchot Partnership produced its first tangible result last October, when a Woodland, Wash., logging contractor purchased 4.2 million board-feet of small-diameter trees for just over $1 million. The Smooth Juniper timber sale was an important victory, which came out of an agreement among all the parties to stop logging in roadless areas and old-growth stands. Instead, the partners agreed to make timber available to local mills through innovative thinning prescriptions, remove unneeded forest roads and conduct citizen monitoring.

The Smooth Juniper sale included full scientific review and public comment. It was not appealed.

Before the collaboration began, the Pinchot was "one of the most-appealed forests," Platt says. "There hasn’t been a single appeal on the (forest) in three years.

"We haven’t needed to change any of the laws," she adds. "And if the Forest Service is pursuing these common-ground projects, it’s not having to spend a lot of time and money on litigation."

 

Although some forest health projects are of debatable value, when a true emergency hits, most opposition evaporates. In 2003, the San Bernardino National Forest erupted in flame after six years of insect infestations and the worst drought in 150 years. The fires destroyed a small town and burned more than a third of the forest’s 36 million trees. Much of the forest remains highly flammable.

Managers on the San Bernardino have used provisions in the Healthy Forests Act to move projects forward, says vegetation management specialist Bob Sommer. But much of the environmental review occurred before the law was passed, and only a few citizen objections have been filed.

The biggest obstacle to forest health treatments, agency officials and conservationists agree, is not appeals or litigation but inadequate funding. For fiscal year 2006, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have a budget of approximately $500 million for fuels-reduction work. That’s up more than $30 million from 2005, but it’s still less than two-thirds of the goal set by the Healthy Forests Restoration Act.

The San Bernardino, where hundreds of thousands of acres await treatment, has received $62 million in extra appropriations to conduct fuel-reduction projects over the past three years. "We have needs that are well beyond that," says forest spokeswoman Ruth Wenstrom. "We could use $30 million per year for the next 10 years."

The bright side

When it comes to legitimate forest-treatment projects, consensus is often within reach. The old rules of forest management, including environmental review and public input, do not cause undue delay. Which raises the question: Why did we need Healthy Forests?

Before Healthy Forests, there was the National Fire Plan. Developed by Western governors in response to the landmark fire season of 2000, it laid out a strategy for addressing fire suppression, community fire protection and fuels reduction across the West — without imposing restrictions on appeals or litigation, and without shortcutting environmental review. It encompassed state and private lands as well as public lands. It had support from environmentalists as well as the timber industry. Congress funded it to the tune of $1.6 billion in 2000.

Couldn’t the National Fire Plan have done the job, while avoiding all the distrust and blunders caused by Healthy Forests?

Yes, say those who have seen collaboration work without those shortcuts. "The Healthy Forests Restoration Act has had relatively little meaningful impact," says Andy Stahl. "It’s not legal authority that the Forest Service needed. It was money."

Ann Walker of the Oregon Department of Forestry disagrees. Although the National Fire Plan established partnerships among federal, state and private landowners, she said, it didn’t give them the legal standing they have with Healthy Forests.

"The Healthy Forests Restoration Act allows communities to have an active voice in federal land management," says Walker, who coordinates implementation of the fire plan for Oregon. In particular, she points to a provision in the law — added at the eleventh hour by Democratic senators — that encourages locals to write community wildfire protection plans and gives federal agencies incentives to follow them.

Also, without limits on appeals, it’s hard to get buy-in from people in the timber business, says Bonnie Wood, who oversees the forest health program for the Forest Service and BLM in Oregon and Washington. "People say, ‘What is the point in my being here, when a postage stamp can stop this?’ "

The Healthy Forests Restoration Act has forced the Forest Service to listen, Wood adds. "Before, we had supervisors and district rangers who were doing collaborative work. And there were no rewards for that," Wood says. "(The law) has legitimized collaboration on the front end of forest planning and legitimized the community’s role. It says, ‘Collaborate.’ Now, line officers are expected to do that. I think it’s a huge change in the culture."

Even Matthew Koehler of the Native Forest Network says that in the right hands, Healthy Forests can lead to more public involvement and a better process. On a Lolo National Forest project, for example, "The Forest Service has been up-front with the public," he says. "Almost everybody from the community, and from the surrounding area, has been involved. The process has been refreshing."

The Healthy Forests Restoration Act also gave the Forest Service long-term authority to use "stewardship contracts" to pay loggers for forest restoration. And it is helping to jump-start an industry to use branches and other leftover "biomass" to generate electricity. Many forest managers say the new rules do save them time and money — even if some of the early experiments have been rocky.

 

Back on the Deschutes in Oregon, Sisters District Ranger Bill Anthony plans to use the tools provided by Healthy Forests to implement his next big project, a 32,000-acre thin outside the Metolius Basin. He expects little or no opposition, because the plan will be consistent with the Sisters Community Wildfire Protection Plan.

With the streamlined process, "it may take us a year instead of two" and cost $125,000 to plan the project, he says. In contrast, planning the 15,000-acre Metolius Basin project took two years and cost at least $500,000.

The new project won’t trigger the same intense citizen involvement, Anthony says. Still, he believes the time invested in winning trust on the Metolius was well spent. "We went slowly for a few years, taking the time to do a huge community involvement process," he says. "That has paid off in terms of a lot more trust and confidence in the work we are doing, and a lot less controversy. If we started cutting big trees, the controversy would boil up again. But we don’t intend to do that."

Two paths diverge

If parts of Healthy Forests are slowly winning acceptance among skeptics, however, controversy is at a boil over a new piece of logging legislation. The Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act, co-sponsored by Reps. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Brian Baird, D-Wash., now appears to be on a fast track to pass the House.

Introduced in November, the bill is designed to speed the salvage logging of trees damaged by wind, insects or fire. It employs the same tools Healthy Forests uses to expedite forest health projects: shortcuts on appeals, an easing of the NEPA requirement that agencies consider a range of options, no outside endangered species review.

Baird, whose sponsorship of the measure has outraged environmentalists, defends it as "a responsible, common-sense bill" that will help fund scientific research into the effects of salvage logging (HCN, 2/6/06: Study questions value of post-fire logging).

But the Walden-Baird bill promises to be even more controversial than Healthy Forests. While foresters generally agree that thinning, prescribed fire and other tools can increase a forest’s vigor and help it withstand wildfire, there is scant scientific evidence of environmental benefits from post-fire salvage logging.

The headlong rush to pass the bill before the November elections is reminiscent of the president’s push, three years ago, to pass the Healthy Forests Restoration Act. (Bush has been notably silent on the bill, but David Tenny, with the Agriculture Department, calls it "very encouraging.") But before it acts, Congress might want to pause and consider what lessons can be learned from the administration’s most ambitious salvage-logging experiment to date.

The Biscuit Fire salvage project in southwestern Oregon started out as a proposal to harvest a modest amount of charred timber and restore land damaged in the half-million-acre blaze that swept through the Siskiyou Mountains in 2002. The Bush administration dramatically expanded the project’s size, opening the burned forest to logging all the way to the edge of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.

But the Biscuit Fire project blew up in the Forest Service’s face. (HCN, 5/16/05: Unsalvageable). To date, the agency has lost between $9 million and $10 million on the project, according to a recent study. While the agency projected 372 million board-feet would come off the Biscuit, it has produced only 66 million board-feet, generating almost no revenue for the restoration projects the logging was supposed to pay for.

Ultimately, the Bush administration chose conflict over consensus. It chose to make a political statement, rather than get some real work done in the ailing Western woods.

 

Kathie Durbin, author of Tree Huggers and Tongass, writes about public lands from Portland, Oregon. HCN Editor Greg Hanscom contributed to this report.

 
 

Sidebars

Slim margins

Loggers say forest-restoration work, which involves the thinning and cutting of small, skinny trees, doesn’t bring in much money

National Fire Plan vs. the Healthy Forests rule changes

The National Fire Plan, the Healthy Forests Initiative and the Healthy Forests Restoration Act are explained and compared

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