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
 

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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."

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