Can Forest Thinning Prevent Fires?
It looks something like Sodom and Gomorrah in the Western United States this summer--all that fire, all that ash. First, it was Colorado, then Arizona . . . Now politicians from President Bush on down say it's time that the federal government change its forest management ways, and that's making things very hot indeed.
Timber lobbyists and foresters say thin out some national forests as a means of fireproofing them and preventing more superfires; that means cutting trees -- lots of them.
Although the national debate is nascent, this much is clear: The Bush administration wants the forests thinned. During a stop in east-central Arizona, President Bush said the Forest Service should manage forests "so that they are healthy and viable and not become kindling boxes [sic]."
That may be an easy political imperative to put into action in states like Montana and California, where many of the forests are bombs in search of a spark.
But does the new political mood spell trouble for the relatively damp forests west of the Cascades, where most of the Northwest's remaining old-growth timber lies? Will it hamper efforts to ban old-growth logging altogether?
"We are at a moment of truth," says Norm Johnson, a forestry professor at Oregon State University.
As far as the timber industry is concerned, the truth is, predictably enough, that it's time to log our way out of fire danger.
Tom Parton, president of the American Forest Resource Council, is particularly worried about setting aside old-growth forests.
"We would lose the ability to manage those acres, and they'd be more vulnerable to fires," he says. "If environmentalists are interested in seeing trees preserved into the future, then it's going to take some management of old-growth stands."
Many area environmentalists agree that some thinning would be smart, principally around residences in drier, east-of-the-Cascades forests like those around Leavenworth. West of the Cascades, however, they don't believe that even one tree needs to fall to the saw. The main reason is because major fires are relatively rare on the west side, occurring once every 300 to 500 years in a given area.
Jasmine Minbashian, campaign coordinator for the Northwest Old-Growth Campaign, says that gives environmentalists an overwhelming scientific argument against thinning of old-growth forests.
But environmentalists may not need to lean on science. That's because federal law may take a dramatic and definitive turn toward old-growth protection west of the Cascades. In fact, some Northwest enviros say that they have the juice to pull off an old-growth logging ban before year's end.
"We have the science, the economics, public opinion, and the congressional delegation makeup to get it done right now," says Mitch Friedman, director of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance.
"It isn't a slam dunk, but we are in the endgame," says Michael Closson, executive director of Biodiversity Northwest.
Although he and other environmentalists sound so confident of victory that their tones are blasé, the move is a tectonic shift. Since the battles of the 1980s, when it comes to protecting old-growth, environmentalists have been forced to rely on tree-sits and court action brought under laws such as the Endangered Species Act. The legislation Friedman is talking about would give environmentalists what they've never had: an outright ban on old-growth logging in the Cascade forests.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, will reportedly introduce the legislation; his office declined comment for this article. But, according to her office, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, will back the measure; aides to Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, did not return a request for comment.
Washington Congressman Jay Inslee's office says he will introduce companion legislation in the House.
Friedman, for one, isn't fazed at the prospect of trying to get a logging ban through Congress when the political zeitgeist may be shifting toward aggressive logging as a means of protecting property in the Western states. But he admits that Wyden's efforts could run into fire being used as a red herring by "congressional or industry obstructionists," as he puts it.
"We are going through a real transformation about how we think of old-growth forests on the west side," says Johnson, the OSU professor. "In the future, you'll need some ecological or human safety reason to consider harvesting trees."
Philip Dawdy is a staff writer at the Seattle Weekly