The War on Wildfire

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

  • Jim Brown wields a chainsaw to clear a dead lodgepole pine along Highway 20 in the Sisters district of the Deschutes National Forest. When he's not fighting fires Brown is part of a team that thins forests under plans that were in place before Healthy Forests came along

    Dean Guernsey
  • Top: Greg McClarren stands by an old-growth ponderosa pine in a thinned area of the Metolius Project. In front, a slash pile awaits burning, come fall. Bottom: Map of Oregon

    Top: COURTESY FRIENDS OF THE METOLIUS Bottom: Diane Syvain
  • The WPK Mill in Sweet Home, Oregon, chips small-diameter logs that aren't suitable for lumber, including some brought from the Melcher projects on the Metolius. The portable chipper can turn logs with diameters of 2 1/2 to 30 inches into a truckload of chips in about a half-hour; the chips are sent to a paper mill in Toledo, Oregon. Middle, logs come in from eastern Oregon and the mid-Willamette Valley. Bottom, Jerry McCough operates the wood chipper

    CRAIG VOLPE
  • Bill Anthony stands in an area of the Metolius Basin Forest Management Project that was treated by the Melcher company. Large, healthy trees were left standing, while small, spindly ones were hauled away for chipping or piled for burning

    DEAN GUERNSEY
 

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.

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