The Myth of "Thinning" Forests


Projects to reduce flammable undergrowth are already exempt from environmental laws, and environmentalists consistently support such projects.

When pro-logging Western politicians passed the "salvage logging rider" in 1995, many environmental advocates vowed that it would never be allowed to happen again. The rider suspended all federal environmental laws to allow unrestrained logging of healthy, green old-growth forests on federal lands under the guise of "forest health" and "fire risk reduction." This, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that logging increases severe fire conditions.

Now it's happening again.

Last month, President Bush announced the "Healthy Forests Initiative," a proposal that would curtail environmental reviews and legal challenges to logging plans and accelerate so-called mechanical thinning (another way of saying logging) on 190 million acres of federal land. The initiative would set aside money made from the timber operations to pay for forest-fire prevention programs, which could cost as much as $4 billion annually.

Bush's proposal comes at a time when the logging industry's foot soldiers in Congress, led by the notoriously anti-environmental Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, have now threatened a new appropriations "rider" that would suspend environmental laws supposedly to expedite "fuels reduction" projects on national forests.

As one of the West's key lawmakers, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has paid lip service to reducing flammable undergrowth from federal forests, but in fact has promoted programs that increase removal of mature trees. "Thinning is probably the greatest source of apprehension among environmentalists," she stated last month. "But I strongly believe we can find an accommodation to do this." Feinstein failed to mention, however, that projects to reduce flammable undergrowth are already exempt from current environmental laws, and environmentalists consistently support such projects. Conservationists only challenge inappropriate projects that focus on the removal of medium and large trees.

If the logging industry gets its way, mature trees from 12 to 30 inches in diameter will be felled at a shocking rate with no restrictions, laws or public involvement. Disturbingly, the government's own science warns that such an approach will increase, not decrease, severe fires because removal of these larger trees reduces forest canopy cover, creating hotter, drier conditions. Essentially, logging companies and their political apologists seek to remove the larger, more fire-resistant trees and leave in their wake the smaller, more combustible material and "slash debris" -- limbs and twigs from felled trees, which are costly to remove.

Bush, Craig, Feinstein et al. imply that the sale of medium and large trees could pay for reduction of underbrush. But they all fail to mention that US Forest Service documents show that logging costs about as much as brush reduction, and is sometimes more expensive.

In addition, because logging reduces shade cover and increases sunlight exposure, it speeds the growth of easily ignited weeds and shrubs. As a result, every few years this brush must be reduced at significant expense. Typically, though, the Forest Service simply ignores the problem. It was for this very reason that a federal judge ruled last year that Feinstein's Quincy Library Group logging plan was actually increasing the likelihood of severe fires.

What is needed is an increase in funding for brush reduction within and adjacent to residential communities, as the federal government's own National Fire Plan recommends. The Forest Service's own research shows that if simple steps are taken to reduce the flammability of homes and their immediate surroundings within 200 feet, they will be protected even from severe fires.

Amazingly, however, the press releases issued by Feinstein, Craig and company urge that scarce federal funds should instead be spent on logging projects in remote areas. Logging companies, of course, have no interest in clearing underbrush near houses. They want valuable large trees -- period.

The great tragedy here is that if the timber industry gets its way, the only projects that will be insulated and expedited are those that remove large trees and increase fire risk. Funds will be diverted from brush reduction near homes to large commercial logging projects. Instead of thinning underbrush, these projects deceptively use the term "thinning" for commercial logging of medium and large trees. Homes will burn while logging companies get richer.

Decades of logging on federal lands have not reduced severe fires; they have, in fact, created them. It's time to stop logging on our national forests.

Chad Hanson is executive director of the John Muir Project and is a national director of the Sierra Club. He lives in Cedar Ridge (Nevada County) near the Tahoe National Forest.

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