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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Although some forest health projects are of debatable value, when a true emergency hits, most opposition evaporates. In 2003, the San Bernardino National Forest erupted in flame after six years of insect infestations and the worst drought in 150 years. The fires destroyed a small town and burned more than a third of the forest’s 36 million trees. Much of the forest remains highly flammable.

Managers on the San Bernardino have used provisions in the Healthy Forests Act to move projects forward, says vegetation management specialist Bob Sommer. But much of the environmental review occurred before the law was passed, and only a few citizen objections have been filed.

The biggest obstacle to forest health treatments, agency officials and conservationists agree, is not appeals or litigation but inadequate funding. For fiscal year 2006, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have a budget of approximately $500 million for fuels-reduction work. That’s up more than $30 million from 2005, but it’s still less than two-thirds of the goal set by the Healthy Forests Restoration Act.

The San Bernardino, where hundreds of thousands of acres await treatment, has received $62 million in extra appropriations to conduct fuel-reduction projects over the past three years. "We have needs that are well beyond that," says forest spokeswoman Ruth Wenstrom. "We could use $30 million per year for the next 10 years."

The bright side

When it comes to legitimate forest-treatment projects, consensus is often within reach. The old rules of forest management, including environmental review and public input, do not cause undue delay. Which raises the question: Why did we need Healthy Forests?

Before Healthy Forests, there was the National Fire Plan. Developed by Western governors in response to the landmark fire season of 2000, it laid out a strategy for addressing fire suppression, community fire protection and fuels reduction across the West — without imposing restrictions on appeals or litigation, and without shortcutting environmental review. It encompassed state and private lands as well as public lands. It had support from environmentalists as well as the timber industry. Congress funded it to the tune of $1.6 billion in 2000.

Couldn’t the National Fire Plan have done the job, while avoiding all the distrust and blunders caused by Healthy Forests?

Yes, say those who have seen collaboration work without those shortcuts. "The Healthy Forests Restoration Act has had relatively little meaningful impact," says Andy Stahl. "It’s not legal authority that the Forest Service needed. It was money."

Ann Walker of the Oregon Department of Forestry disagrees. Although the National Fire Plan established partnerships among federal, state and private landowners, she said, it didn’t give them the legal standing they have with Healthy Forests.

"The Healthy Forests Restoration Act allows communities to have an active voice in federal land management," says Walker, who coordinates implementation of the fire plan for Oregon. In particular, she points to a provision in the law — added at the eleventh hour by Democratic senators — that encourages locals to write community wildfire protection plans and gives federal agencies incentives to follow them.

Also, without limits on appeals, it’s hard to get buy-in from people in the timber business, says Bonnie Wood, who oversees the forest health program for the Forest Service and BLM in Oregon and Washington. "People say, ‘What is the point in my being here, when a postage stamp can stop this?’ "

The Healthy Forests Restoration Act has forced the Forest Service to listen, Wood adds. "Before, we had supervisors and district rangers who were doing collaborative work. And there were no rewards for that," Wood says. "(The law) has legitimized collaboration on the front end of forest planning and legitimized the community’s role. It says, ‘Collaborate.’ Now, line officers are expected to do that. I think it’s a huge change in the culture."

Even Matthew Koehler of the Native Forest Network says that in the right hands, Healthy Forests can lead to more public involvement and a better process. On a Lolo National Forest project, for example, "The Forest Service has been up-front with the public," he says. "Almost everybody from the community, and from the surrounding area, has been involved. The process has been refreshing."

The Healthy Forests Restoration Act also gave the Forest Service long-term authority to use "stewardship contracts" to pay loggers for forest restoration. And it is helping to jump-start an industry to use branches and other leftover "biomass" to generate electricity. Many forest managers say the new rules do save them time and money — even if some of the early experiments have been rocky.

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