Smoke, Forests and Fears

Forests as large as three states must be logged in order to save them from being unhealthy fire magnets -- at least that is the consensus of six Western governors and the timber industry. The Department of Interior and the US Forest Service back this massive logging in the cause of fire hazard reduction. Environmentalists agree, however, that it's a sop to the timber industry, even though it might produce some crumbs to the hard-working community-based sustainable foresters.

"We're looking at quadrupling" the forests that are now logged for fire protection, said Mark Rey, US Department of Agriculture undersecretary for natural resources & environment.

Rey, along with a high-level cadre of Bush administration officials, including Secretary of Interior Gale Norton, USFS chief Dale Bosworth, and the governors of Montana, Idaho, New Mexico, Oregon and Arizona, all met in what was billed as a learning session and consensus building program in mid-June in Missoula, Montana.

The learning process was shanghaied, however, where the "psychology of trust (meets) the physics of fire," according to Larry Campbell, a volunteer for Friends of the Bitteroot (Forest). "It would be one thing if they implemented fire protection but as soon as we open that door, they'll drive a bulldozer through it." For instance, Norton underscores the administration's plan to "streamline" the National Environmental Policy Act process and using "categorical exclusions" from NEPA to get logging projects through. (These logging projects are formally called "treatments" in the bureaucracy.)

A newly plowed backroad for the industry's bulldozer is now "one of the greatest tools open to us," according to Secretary Norton. "The public-private partnership -- stewardship contracting."

Environmentalists give the stewardship contracting concept tepid endorsement in the best of worlds. There, in that perfect world, forest "thinning" can be accomplished without removing the mulch needed to protect soil and allow water retention. It can employ the terminally underemployed in rural forest towns. In a few unfinished pilot projects, thinning without damaging the forest might actually be accomplished, say observers. But, according to one potential contractor, some of the contracts are designed to destroy forests.

Stewardship contracting is exchanging "goods for services," explains assistant Interior secretary, land & minerals management, Rebecca Watson. While contractors bid on their plans to "thin" public lands and do other work such as repair infrastructure, they get the goods -- the trees they can turn into profit. The Forest Service has about 80 such projects. Interior plans on starting its own, with proposed guidelines to be published in the Federal Register for 30-day public comment beginning the week of June 23.

Stewardship contracting could come in handy for the government in places where traditional timber sales don't offer enough value to industry to make it profitable, according to the Forest Service's Rey. The government hopes that private industry will find value in small trees to burn in electric or steam generators. This is known as "biomass" energy. It has yet to survive without major subsidies, however.

If the doublespeak-titled "Healthy Forests Act" passes the Senate this summer, money will probably be appropriated for more stewardship contracts. The Act targets 190 million acres as potential for logging, er, "treatment."

"We're not going to treat all 190 million acres," explained Rey -- an official who is the target of environmentalists' ire due to his background as a timber industry lobbyist. "We're probably looking at 10- to 12-year programs to treat priority land." Rey hopes that will quadruple what is now being logged for fire prevention. He hopes forests logged under this rubric to total about 9 million acres a year.

Rey added, though, that the government cannot say that if 9 million acres a year are logged for fire purposes that it will solve the problem. He said forests are not static and that insects and weather can greatly affect forest health. He said that logging the forests for fire management is a program that will go beyond the Bush administration, although this administration is "focused more intently" on it.

Rey said that the administration's Healthy Forests Initiative -- separate but in accord with the Healthy Forests Act -- is aimed at not only the logging process but the process of altering the public's view of forestry. "In the average person's mind, forests are static and cutting them down is bad. We hope to develop a different view of nature and come to some acceptance [that logging] can be used in a positive way."

J.A. Savage is an environmental economics reporter who has also worked as a forest firefighter.

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