We need a sensible approach to fight wildfires

  It's the sweet time of year in northern Montana, late drying-out summer, easing into the rains of autumn, and in the soft low green hills of the Yaak Valley, on the Kootenai National Forest, the mornings are tinged, not unpleasantly, with the smell of wood smoke. Objects take on a golden glow, illuminated by the smoke-filtered sunlight above. Sometimes the smoke is so far away that you can smell it but can't see it, or can see that strange gold light on your arm, or a piece of fruit by the window, even as the sky appears to be perfectly blue, and you know that autumn is coming as it always has.

Up here, the really large wildfires tend of late to run in six-year cycles, as they have perhaps across the millennia, whereas the political cycles rage every two years. Cycle by cycle, we make slow gains in educating the public about fire--in separating fear-mongering myth from scientific reality--though in election cycles, the truth often backslides.

This year, the Bush administration's so-called "Healthy Forest Initiative" (H.R.1904, known in the Senate as the "Senate Logging Bill"), was a document born of the times, one which only aggravates a credibility gap that it would seem this administration would be attempting to close.

The Healthy Forest Initiative is most dangerous and untruthful on two major points: First, it focuses on increasing logging of the national forests in the remote backcountry, far from the human communities supposedly at risk. The Forest Service's own studies show that fire prevention is most effective within 200 feet of a dwelling; beyond that, proposing to stop a fire by logging a certain grove carries the same odds as finding a needle in a haystack.

Second, the bill proposes to take away the public's democratic right to participate effectively in the decision-making process of how our national forests are managed, and it also intrudes on the federal court system by directing the judiciary to rule in favor of the timber industry.

Despite the timber industry's claims to the contrary, the General Accounting Office (GAO) has ascertained that citizen participation in national forest management through the formal appeals process has not had any detrimental effect nation-wide; indeed, the appeals process, where citizens point out oversights in federal proposals, can be, and often is, a positive force, able to increase efficiency.

A more moderate and democratic proposal to the Bush administration’s bill has been offered in the Senate by Sens. Patrick Leahy,D-Vermont, and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the latter certainly no stranger to wildfire in her state.

Leahy's and Boxer's "Forestry and Community Assistance Act of 2003" (S.B. 1453) would protect the backcountry sources of municipal and community drinking water, rather than logging those distant sources. (Roughly 80 percent of the nation's freshwater supplies originate in the last roadless areas of our national forests). What most recently has emerged is a compromise sponsored mostly by Westerners, including Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Max Baucus, D-Mont., Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., Blanche Lincoln, D-Ariz., Pete Domenici , R-N.M., Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Larry Craig , R-Idaho,, which, if not altered by further compromise, will keep logging out of old-growth and other sensitive areas, protect (though streamline) the appeals process, and focus on, and fund, thinning in and around human communities.

If this is the bill that winds up on President Bush’s desk, Westerners will be watching to see if the projects authorized focus on removing the small, flammable overstocked trees closest to human communities, rather than continuing to fund the disbursement of the largest, healthiest trees to the timber industry. Having witnessed some abusive logging on national forests disguised as "fuels reduction" or "salvage," as well as logging that did some good, I fear there will be plenty of both emerging from whatever compromise is achieved. What I hope emerges from our attempts to treat national forests near settlements is "community forestry" -- pilot restoration projects on a small scale. As an added incentive for successful implementation of fuels-reduction projects, a system could be authorized that would bundle permanent protection of backcountry roadless areas with fuels-reduction treatments near human communities, in the front country.

These are the efforts that can unite local mill owners and environmentalists. What some timber industry executives and rural communities have learned is that local relationships and agreements are far more effective than iron-fisted legislative riders that attempt to undo decades of federal law.

Rick Bass is a contributor to Writers on the Range (hcn.org), a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado. He is a geologist, wildlife biologist and the author of several books about the Yaak Valley of Montana, where he lives.