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

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • ASSISTANT TOWN ATTORNEY
    Town of Jackson, Wyoming, $66,700 - $88,000 DOQ, full benefits. Law Degree Required. Rental housing options available. For a complete job description and to apply,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...