Battle rages on whether or not to log in fire prevention

Contrary to the claims of Republican politicians, two studies - one by a Congressional research group and one by an environmental group have concluded that logging does not protect national forests against forest fires.

After Republican Congressmen recently blamed this year’s fire season – the most serious in the western US in 50 years – on federal policies reducing logging in national forests, the two studies even concluded that the practice often increases a forest’s fire risk, US media reported on 5 September.

One report, carried out by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), a bipartisan research group which analyses federal policies for Congress, said that “The acres burned in any particular year appear to be at most weakly related to the volume of timber harvested”.

“Timber harvesting removes the relatively large diameter wood that can be converted into wood products, but leaves behind the small material, especially twigs and needles. The concentration of these ‘fine fuels’ on the forest floor increases the rate of spread of wildfires,” said the CRS report, which examined logging levels and fire activity for the past 20 years.

The study found that two of the four worst fire years in 1987 and 1988 witnessed some of the highest timber harvest years of the last two decades. But it also found that in two other high fire years – 1994 and 1996 – timber harvests were low. The report does not include this year’s fires which have made front page news worldwide.

The second report, which was compiled by the environmental coalition, Pacific Biodiversity Institute, and released on 5 September found that only 31% of the acreage burned in the Western US this year was on National Forest land. Since 1989, logging in national forests has been cut by more than 75 %, largely thanks to government measures.

The report, which examined this year’s largest fires also found that:

  • much of the land burned was grasslands, juniper woodlands and other non-forest areas;
  • most of the forests which burned was managed timberland which had already been logged;
  • only 38% of the land burned was in roadless or wilderness areas targeted by the timber industry as among those most at risk for wildfires;
  • much of the burning occurred in forests where intense fire is natural, such as lodgepole pine forests;
  • the almost 6.4 million acres burned this year are well below the century’s average. From 1916 to 1999, an average of 13.9 million acres has burned each year.

However, Western senators vowed on 6 September to examine whether the Clinton administration’s policies have put more public land at risk of wildfires. Republican senator Larry Craig questioned whether the administration underfunded fire prevention to secure money for acquiring lands for environmental protection.

“I’m sure that at the time the president had money taken from these fire budgets he didn’t understand that his lands legacy would be millions of acres of charred trees and lost wildlife habitat,” Craig was reported to have said. Craig said he would hold hearings on the administration’s role in the fires in coming weeks in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s forests and public land management subcommittee.

Some Republicans said Clinton policies, such as a proposal to ban road building in 43 million acres of national forests, would only worsen the fire threat in coming years. “I want to express my deep concerns over the mismanagement of the national forest system that’s led to one of the worst fire systems in the history of the United States of America,” Senator Michael Enzi reportedly said, while Senator Pete Domenici, blamed the government’s failure to reduce the thick growth of trees and brush for fire risks. “It’s been a fear that if you clean this up, you’re logging,” he was reported as saying.

The timber industry agrees that some logging is needed to protect homes and property. “Once this year is factored in, I think you’ll see what we’ve been saying all along – if there is more wood in a forest, there is a stronger possibility of a fire there,” Derek Jumper, spokesperson for the American Forest and Paper Association, reportedly said. “As bad as this year has been, it will probably pale in comparison to future wildfire seasons, if timber harvests continue to be cut,” he warned.

The association, one of the industry’s largest groups, supports tree thinning to prevent the aerial spread of wildfire and wants the policy to be included in a soon to be released US Forest Service fire management plan for wilderness areas.

Timber industry group, The Northwest Forestry Association (NFA) blames federal policy for preventing ‘salvage logging’ to clear potential risks to fire, such as dead wood, from national forests.

The Agriculture and Interior departments are expected to soon ask President Clinton for about $1.2 billion from Congress to repair lands damaged by the fires this year and prevent fires next year.

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