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Know the West

Smoke Trails


Have you noticed? Each year with the coming of fire season comes also a slew of guest commentaries and editorials in western newspapers promoting the idea that the current fire, smoke and destruction are the result of environmentalists’ lawsuits which have locked up the forests resulting in a build up of brush and tees that in turn fuel hotter and hotter fires. These formula pieces then go on to prescribe the solution: muzzle environmentalists’ lawsuits, open up the national forests to more commercial logging and soon the fire risk will be gone.

It is also interesting to observe who is writing the articles. It comes as no surprise, for example, when we see an example of this genre penned by M. David Sterling, vice president of the anti-environmental Pacific Legal Foundation, appearing in the pages of the Capital Press - an Ag weekly widely read by rural folk in Idaho, Washington, Oregon and California. But we also see similar editorials from county commissioners, foresters, extension agents, retired forestry professors, middle level Farm Bureau officials and even, occasionally, from FFA and 4H leaders. And these editorials appear in all sorts of newspapers – including some of the larger dailies as well as the small local chains and independents. 

It appears that the timber industry has no shortage of volunteers to carry their fire message.

The annual barrage of propaganda seeking to link wildfire home burnings to environmental lawsuits and reduction of wildfire risk to commercial logging is, in fact, a PR strategy conceived by big timber and implemented on an annual basis for more than a decade. The results are impressive: If a poll were taken today I believe it would find that most westerners view commercial logging as an effective tool for fire risk reduction.   

It makes no difference that science, experience and economics does not support that assertion. If one is able to repeat a message often enough and have that message heard – no matter how wrong headed or untrue the message is – people will begin to believe it. That is unless there is someone else out there setting the record straight by providing the public with solid information targeted to refute the propaganda line.

Unfortunately, each year while the timber industry and its supporters are exploiting the public attention captured by wildfires, the environmental community is nowhere to be found! I’m not sure if these folks are on vacation or just have too much e-mail but they are definitely not present on the opinion pages giving the lie to timber industry fire risk propaganda or – better still - taking the offensive by linking logging with the destruction of homes.   

If the hundreds of folks who are paid by the environmental community to work on “forest issues” were on the ball there is plenty of ammunition at their disposal to refute timber industry fire propaganda and to link logging to home destruction. For example, it was clearly demonstrated by Forest Service researchers as early as the late 1980s that older forests located next to clearcuts burn hotter than those which are within large blocks of mature or Old Growth forests. And anyone who has fought forest fire in the West knows that the tree “plantations”  following clearcutting are tinderboxes which explode in flame or that the “slash” left behind by commercial logging generally constitutes the most flammable locations within our forests.

Furthermore, as an ex-forest activist I can cite you 10 or more fires from the Klamath Mountains which “blew up” into fire storms in clearcuts and logging slash. Some of these logging-related firestorms destroyed homes. The evidence is out there on the ground and the fire history has been recorded in some instances by forest residents.

A little investigation would likely uncover more immediate links between logging and home-destroying wildfire. One of the headlines this fire season occurred, for example, when wildfire destroyed hundreds of homes in the Town of Paradise in California’s Northern Sierra foothills. Paradise is surrounded by industrial timber lands – most owned by Sierra Pacific Industries – one of the nation’s largest timber companies. These lands have been clearcut extensively in recent decades and they are full of logging slash, small trees and brush. I have not done the investigation but if one of our plethora of California “forest activists” did, I’ll bet the link between industrial logging and the loss of those Paradise homes would likely come to light.

Don’t hold your breath waiting on that expose, however.  Environmentalists working on western forest issues spend most of their time reading and commenting on obscure Forest Service documents, not educating the public about what is going on in the forests. With rare exceptions, the field of western public opinion on fire and logging is plowed only by the timber industry and its eager shills. That is the way it has been for a couple of decades and there is no indication the situation will change anytime soon.

So, why is commercial logging not an appropriate and effective tool for fire risk reduction? This, of course, is the crux. But it is a question which will have to await another day and another post.