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Know the West

Fires bring on a flood of federal funds

 

As this summer's massive wildfires wind down, the West still can't decide who's at fault. Yet nearly everyone agrees on one thing: A century of fire suppression has disrupted the cycle of frequent fires in dry conifer forests, replacing old-growth pine stands with thickets of small trees. When the fuel buildup collided with drought and high winds this year, the fires were all but inevitable.

In a national radio address on Sept. 9, President Clinton announced a $1.5 billion solution. His proposal for fire recovery and forest restoration, based on a 35-page report from Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, sends money to impacted communities, gives a giant boost to firefighting efforts, and includes a $257 million budget request for fuel reduction. At a Sept. 15 Senate hearing, Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck said his agency wanted to use the money this year to treat 1.8 million acres of federal forests with thinning and prescribed burning.

There's something for everyone. Trees will come out of the forest, which pleases the timber industry and conservative Western politicians. "It's a real management plan, hands-on instead of being locked out," says Will Hart, spokesman for Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho.

The program won't depend on commercial timber sales for funding, so some environmentalists are giving their cautious approval, too.

But the proposal is brand-new, and no one's said much about how or where the treatments will be done. So the question is: Will these pleasing generalizations turn into an effective restoration plan for the West's forests?

A custom-fit cure?

The announcement has turned an intense spotlight on the Grand Canyon Forests Partnership program in Flagstaff, Ariz. (HCN, 3/1/99). The program aims to thin 100,000 acres of ponderosa pine stands on national forest lands around the city. One of the West's most ambitious restoration projects, it's been widely credited with inspiring the administration's proposal.

But Chris Wood, special assistant to Dombeck, says only that the Flagstaff program is "a useful project for that area," adding, "I'm very reluctant to say it's a model. We want to be extremely careful of any one-size-fits-all solutions."

Brad Ack of the Grand Canyon Trust in Flagstaff, who has worked on the Flagstaff program since 1996, praises the administration's plan. But he adds, "We need to emphasize that these are experimental programs. We don't know what different forest treatments are going to do."

These caveats are small comfort to Henry Carey, the executive director of the Forest Trust in Santa Fe, N.M. "Overall, the notion that we're going to do landscape-level treatments really disturbs me," he says. "In spite of the emergency, we'd be better off doing really intensive research into a wide variety of treatments."

Because there aren't many tested treatments available, he fears that the most drastic of the Flagstaff program's strategies - which can dramatically change the look of the forest - will become a "fallback." "The issue the public needs to face," he says, "is whether they're willing to sustain that level of thinning in order to limit fire."

The administration will try to develop a limited market for the small trees, which worries environmentalists such as Matthew Koehler of Native Forest Network in Missoula, Mont. He believes that any commercial sales in the national forests will leave the door open to an expanded federal timber program. "What's it going to be like if we have a Bush administration," he asks, "and someone like (Montana Gov.) Mark Racicot in the secretary of Interior position?"

A complex picture

No matter who occupies the White House and the cabinet next year, they are sure to find themselves under pressure from another camp: those who want a more aggressive, logging-intensive response to the season's fires.

The administration has set its sights on the "urban-wildland interface," the stands of trees bordering cities and towns. Fires in the interface clearly caused the most human damage this summer, and most of these forests are lower-elevation, brush-choked pine stands, where thinning can have the greatest impact. "It's impossible, and not desirable, to fireproof our forests," says Chris Wood. "But we can reduce the risks, make communities safer, and restore ecological processes."

One problem with the quick release of the proposal is that little is known about what kind of forests burned this summer. The Forest Service hasn't had time to analyze the forest types; a call to the overextended Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, only provokes sighs of exasperation. "We won't know that for quite some time," says one person after another.

But a recent report by the Pacific Biodiversity Institute, funded by several environmental groups, analyzed data from 11 large Western fires this summer, covering 1.2 million of the 4.9 million acres that burned in the West. The study found that only 8 percent were in the famously fire-prone dry conifer forests; almost 60 percent were at higher elevations, where infrequent, high-intensity fires are the norm. "Those fires are right on schedule," says Peter Morrison, the institute's executive director. Thirty-six percent of the fires were not in forests at all, he says, but in grasslands and lower-elevation shrublands.

Even this preliminary study shows that thinning, no matter how severe, won't make the West's big fires disappear. But as the smoke-filled summers continue, bigger cuts might become a more popular idea, and the Forest Service - which still has its roots in the timber-harvesting business - might find it difficult to uphold its new push for ecology-minded forestry.

"It certainly has not completed the transition to an ecosystem management agency," says Ack of the Grand Canyon Trust. "I hope and I believe it is on its way to that, but it requires more than good words from the top."

Sen. Craig chairs the timber subcommittee and spokesman Hart says "the prospects are good" that Congress will grant the budget request.

And if the administration gets what it wants, Wood says, the Forest Service will get the chance to make that transition. "We've historically cut bigger, older trees, then used the receipts to do fuel treatments," he says. "We need to leave the bigger trees intact and target smaller trees. It's a very different way of looking at forest management, and it's one we've known about for a long time, but there hasn't been a lot of funding to apply these principles on the ground."

So now, he says, "we're just going to ask Congress for a boatload of money."

Michelle Nijhuis is an associate editor of HCN.

You can contact ...

* The Grand Canyon Trust, 520/774-7488;

* Forest Trust, 505/983-8992;

* Pacific Biodiversity Institute, 509/996- 2490 and [email protected], or,

* find the secretaries' report on the Web at www.whitehouse.gov/CEQ/- firereport.pdf.