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
 

Page 5

 

Back on the Deschutes in Oregon, Sisters District Ranger Bill Anthony plans to use the tools provided by Healthy Forests to implement his next big project, a 32,000-acre thin outside the Metolius Basin. He expects little or no opposition, because the plan will be consistent with the Sisters Community Wildfire Protection Plan.

With the streamlined process, "it may take us a year instead of two" and cost $125,000 to plan the project, he says. In contrast, planning the 15,000-acre Metolius Basin project took two years and cost at least $500,000.

The new project won’t trigger the same intense citizen involvement, Anthony says. Still, he believes the time invested in winning trust on the Metolius was well spent. "We went slowly for a few years, taking the time to do a huge community involvement process," he says. "That has paid off in terms of a lot more trust and confidence in the work we are doing, and a lot less controversy. If we started cutting big trees, the controversy would boil up again. But we don’t intend to do that."

Two paths diverge

If parts of Healthy Forests are slowly winning acceptance among skeptics, however, controversy is at a boil over a new piece of logging legislation. The Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act, co-sponsored by Reps. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Brian Baird, D-Wash., now appears to be on a fast track to pass the House.

Introduced in November, the bill is designed to speed the salvage logging of trees damaged by wind, insects or fire. It employs the same tools Healthy Forests uses to expedite forest health projects: shortcuts on appeals, an easing of the NEPA requirement that agencies consider a range of options, no outside endangered species review.

Baird, whose sponsorship of the measure has outraged environmentalists, defends it as "a responsible, common-sense bill" that will help fund scientific research into the effects of salvage logging (HCN, 2/6/06: Study questions value of post-fire logging).

But the Walden-Baird bill promises to be even more controversial than Healthy Forests. While foresters generally agree that thinning, prescribed fire and other tools can increase a forest’s vigor and help it withstand wildfire, there is scant scientific evidence of environmental benefits from post-fire salvage logging.

The headlong rush to pass the bill before the November elections is reminiscent of the president’s push, three years ago, to pass the Healthy Forests Restoration Act. (Bush has been notably silent on the bill, but David Tenny, with the Agriculture Department, calls it "very encouraging.") But before it acts, Congress might want to pause and consider what lessons can be learned from the administration’s most ambitious salvage-logging experiment to date.

The Biscuit Fire salvage project in southwestern Oregon started out as a proposal to harvest a modest amount of charred timber and restore land damaged in the half-million-acre blaze that swept through the Siskiyou Mountains in 2002. The Bush administration dramatically expanded the project’s size, opening the burned forest to logging all the way to the edge of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.

But the Biscuit Fire project blew up in the Forest Service’s face. (HCN, 5/16/05: Unsalvageable). To date, the agency has lost between $9 million and $10 million on the project, according to a recent study. While the agency projected 372 million board-feet would come off the Biscuit, it has produced only 66 million board-feet, generating almost no revenue for the restoration projects the logging was supposed to pay for.

Ultimately, the Bush administration chose conflict over consensus. It chose to make a political statement, rather than get some real work done in the ailing Western woods.

Kathie Durbin, author of Tree Huggers and Tongass, writes about public lands from Portland, Oregon. HCN Editor Greg Hanscom contributed to this report.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

Slim margins - Loggers say forest-restoration work, which involves the thinning and cutting of small, skinny trees, doesn’t bring in much money

National Fire Plan vs. the Healthy Forests rule changes - The National Fire Plan, the Healthy Forests Initiative and the Healthy Forests Restoration Act are explained and compared

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