PRESIDENT BUSH WENT TO OREGON LAST week to announce a new initiative for preventing forest fires. This summer is on pace to be the worst on record for forest fires, with 6.1 million acres already burned, more than twice the 10-year average. Coming so soon after record-breaking 2000, the catastrophic fires seem to justify the president's call for a change in the way we manage our national forests. But Bush's plan will do nothing to protect people's homes from fire. What it will do is open a loophole in the nation's environmental laws big enough to accommodate whole fleets of logging trucks.

The Bush plan mimics the line repeated all summer by hysterical, conservative Western politicians: Huge wildfires could have been prevented if it weren't for environmentalists meddling in Forest Service business. “Standing in the way of [forest treatment] efforts are radical environmentalists who file litigation and seek to otherwise obstruct forest treatment,” said Senator John Kyl, an Arizona Republican. Arizona Governor Jane Dee Hull and Montana Governor Judy Martz, along with Colorado Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, have all weighed in with similar sentiments. The whole crew got significantly louder and seemingly more credible on July 11, when the Forest Service released a report claiming that environmentalists had appealed, and thereby delayed, almost half of their planned “hazardous fuel reduction” projects in 2001 and 2002.

The Bush rhetoric has been slightly different, subtly pinning the blame on Clinton-era forest-management policies rather than outside interference, but the solution he proposes is basically the same as the one put forward earlier this month by a group of Western senators, including two Democrats — our own Dianne Feinstein and Ron Wyden of Oregon. Their mantra is “Free the Forest Service” (and the Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management) from the burden of complying with environmental laws when it does fire-prevention projects, and contract with private timber companies to do the heavy work.

But opening up our forests to private industry in the name of fire prevention is a dangerous move, says Amy Mall, the Natural Resource Defense Council's forest-policy specialist. “Rolling back rules for the timber industry and eliminating public participation represent yet another cynical attempt by perhaps the most anti-environmental administration in U.S. history to line the pockets of its corporate friends at the expense of public safety and our natural heritage.”

The most reckless part of the Bush plan is the push to exempt “timber cutting as part of a fuels-treatment project from public notice and comment as well as judicial review and appeals.” Currently, under the National Environmental Policy Act, all federal agencies must notify the public of any action they plan to take, and offer a chance to comment. If Bush's change took place, a federal agency engaged in a “fuels treatment” project would no longer have to tell the public what it planned to do, would no longer have to listen to the public's opinion and would no longer be subject to the decisions of judges. It would get to interpret environmental laws like the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act however it saw fit, with no outside oversight.

Bush would essentially give the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management license to do anything, provided it called what it was doing a “fuels-treatment project.” Bush has made it clear he plans to use this license to dramatically increase logging, at least in the forests covered by the Northwest Forest Plan (the 1994 agreement that ended litigation over the spotted owl in Northern California, Oregon and Washington) and in the California forests of the Sierra.

The whole idea that any of this will reduce the chances of someone's home burning down is sheer nonsense: The federal government has no control over what Jack Cohen, head of Wildland-Urban Fire Research at the Forest Service's Fire Sciences Lab in Missoula, Montana, calls the “house ignition zone” — the house itself and the 130-foot area surrounding it. The point, says Cohen, is that the principal deterrent of a house fire is “not the condition of our ecosystems, it's the condition of the house ignition zone.”

FOR TOO LONG WE'VE KEPT FIRE OUT OF OUR forests, and now their ecology is all messed up. When we're talking about disastrous forest fires in the West, usually we're talking about low-lying, dry forests of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. In those forests “the problem really began,” says Stephen J. Pyne, professor at Arizona State University and America's foremost fire historian, “with sudden huge overgrazing, first by cattle and then by sheep, because what made possible the large, cool surface fires that were there before was really the presence of grass. The second thing we did was remove a major source of ignition, that is to say the American Indian. And then we started firefighting, and logging.”

Logging took away the biggest, most valuable trees and left piles of branches and sawdust. Today we have forests choked with small trees, which burn easily and act as “ladder fuels,” carrying fire into the crowns of surrounding larger trees.

Environmentalists and the Forest Service pretty much agree on what needs to be done. Take out the small trees, leave the big trees spaced out the way they were before, and then start burning the forests ourselves.

But it's expensive work. It can cost anywhere from $300 to $1,500 per acre to do proper fuels treatment, and the Forest Service simply has too much land and not enough money. So Bush has proposed that private timber companies do the thinning in exchange for the wood products. This is an about-face from Clinton-era policy. The original report to President Clinton on wildfire strategy, following the fires of 2000, warned against using commercial logging as a shortcut to forest thinning.

If the goal of the Bush plan really were to remove young trees, it would fail on practical grounds. Trees smaller than 9 inches in diameter have little commercial value. When the Forest Service tries to sell thinning contracts to timber companies, it finds that those areas with commercial potential get treated first, rather than those areas with the most urgent ecological needs. Says Raymond Smith, appeals and litigation manager for the Forest Service's Northern Region: “Sometimes a forest will put together a management plan and parts of it will never sell, because there's just too much small stuff in those parts and not enough big stuff.”

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