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Cutting Down the Trees to Save the Forest From Fire

More Logging Won't Protect Our Forests


Thursday, August 2, 2007

Our national forests were once comprised of trees but the Forest Service and timber industry has now determined that the forest is made up of fuels. Apparently timber sales are a thing of the past, replaced by fuels reduction and vegetation management projects. Retired forest service supervisor Sonny LaSalle has recently argued in an opinion piece that we need to reduce the fuel loading of our forests in order to save the big ponderosa pines from wildfire. He refers to the trees in our forests as “fuels” not less than 12 times and blames Friends of the Bitterroot for impeding the removal of fuels. This “fuels reduction” strategy, he claims, is not rocket science; we should trust that the Forest Service "knows how to ensure a healthy forest for the future.”

These assurances that it is safe to abdicate our concerns for our forests' future should alarm us all. Our intimate involvement in matters that concern our great land is part of our national heritage. The complexities of a forest ecosystem are far beyond rocket science. Humans have been sending rockets into space for nearly 50 years, usually with considerable success. The Forest Service and timber industry, on the other hand, have been managing our national forests for 100 years and they haven't gotten it right yet. Clear cutting, terracing, excessive road building, overzealous fire suppression, and now the Bush administration's laughably titled “Healthy Forests Act,” hatched up by former timber industry lobbyist, Mark Rey. The rationale behind the act is that if the forests are harvested, they can't burn. Apparently they believe that if they can just disguise logging with a beneficent name that the American public will believe in the charade.

La Salle fails to mention that the timber industry has already logged off 95 percent of our nation's old-growth forests, a fact he well knows as former supervisor of the Payette national forest in Idaho. He also omits the fact that in order to help pay for more of the fuels reduction/destruction we will need to log more old growth trees and that somehow this strategy will save the big ponderosa pines. It is a familiar pattern: the timber industry's answer to every forest “problem” is more logging, and now they are exploiting the public's fear of wildfire to justify that agenda.

Scientists have recently confirmed what many of us have known intuitively for a long time. Our forests are burning because it is hot and dry, and it is hot and dry because humans have relied excessively on burning fossil fuels for energy, releasing enormous amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. Here in Montana we are experiencing perhaps the hottest and driest conditions in recorded history. For the past 19 years, beginning with Yellowstone in 1988, enormous landscape-level wildfires have been burning in the western U.S. almost every year. We are all weary of breathing smoke and ash, but we had better get used to it because we will be no more able to prevent or control wildfire than we can flood or hurricane. Because we have failed to acknowledge and find solutions for global warming, we have not only endangered our forests, but we have imperiled our existence on the planet. It is perversely ironic that those who have been the largest impediment to solving perhaps the greatest threat that humanity has ever faced, have at the latest hour, devised yet another twisted justification for taking more from the land. Every person should be prepared to answer their children and grandchildren when they ask how we failed to raise our voices in protest when the evidence was so overwhelming; polar bears gone missing, sea levels rising, hurricanes raging, forests burning.

Will humans ever have the humility to admit that they can't manage a forest, no less even begin to understand the complexities of a forest ecosystem? To claim that this way of protecting our large trees is “not rocket science” is typical of the kind of hubris which has brought us so much trouble in the first place. The environmental groups that are accused of hindering the Forest Service's management efforts exist for a very good reason: to make sure that “forest health” is not exclusively defined by the timber industry and its vested interest in logging our forests. We, in Friends of the Bitterroot, take our responsibility to protect our forests from those who would profit by its destruction very seriously, as we are all answerable to posterity.

Jim Miller