Wild Earth Guardians on Zone of Agreement

Thanks to Matthew Koehler for this op-ed from the ABQ Journal.

Lack of Logging Isn’t To Blame in Massive Forest Fires

By Bryan Bird / Wild Places Program Director, WildEarth Guardians on Fri, Jun 24, 2011

As the country floods and burns, climate change is upon us. Smoke from the Wallow Fire in Arizona still lingers, and the predictable but misplaced finger-pointing has begun.

As the grandstanding goes on, however, innovative, collaborative efforts are quietly reshaping the federal forest policies that got us here in the first place and charting a sustainable future for the National Forest System.

Contrary to public perception, there have been few lawsuits challenging sensible fuel reduction on the national forests in the last decade. The GAO concluded in 2010 that about 2 percent of all hazardous fuel reduction decisions by the Forest Service nationwide were litigated. The handful challenged were because of unwarranted impacts to water, wildlife and other valuable resources the national forests generate for Americans.

Ignored in the national discourse: the U.S. Forest Service, loggers, the wood utilization industry and conservationists have been spending valuable time and resources in the woods finding a zone of agreement.

We need to go back more than a couple of decades to understand how the current wildfire situation arose.

During the last hundred years or so the lower elevation, dry pine forests of the west were severely logged over, leaving a nearly uniform mass of small trees. Domestic livestock grazing, which suppresses the grasses that normally carry low intensity fire fostered the proliferation of pine seedlings and aggravated conditions. On top of it all, humans became extremely effective at suppressing most wildfires, leaving the overgrowth unchecked.

Cutting itself out of business, the lumber industry is mostly gone and the market for lumber is at record low. Supposing we threw aside all environmental concerns and opened our public forestlands to logging on a historic scale, as some have suggested, there would be no use for the logs. In a free market system there has to be demand or no amount of deregulation is going to make a difference.

Throw in climate change and drought and you have all the ingredients for the Wallow Fire and others burning in the Southwest. The science is clear; big fire years track drought cycles, and climate change is exacerbating those conditions.

The fires are predictable, but can we do anything to mitigate their effect? Yes, we can.

Starting in 2001 with Sen. Jeff Bingaman’s Collaborative Forest Restoration Program in New Mexico, now expanded nationally, former adversaries began developing forest restoration projects that are environmentally sound and effective. In New Mexico alone, more than 30,000 acres have been treated and about 600 jobs created through the program.

More important, perhaps, are the program’s less quantifiable results, as an atmosphere of litigation and acrimony surrounding resources has given way to a spirit of cooperation.

Logging in the historic sense will leave the forests more vulnerable, not less. On federal, public forests, cost-effective fuel reduction is accomplished with other tools including: wildland fire use, prescribed fire, thinning and removal of livestock grazing pressure.

The Forest Service treated hazardous fuels on one and a half million acres with thinning or burning in 2010; many of these acres are strategically located around communities and proved critical in defending Arizona towns in the latest blaze.

Senators John Kyle of Arizona and Ron Wyden of Oregon told a senate committee recently that the Forest Service needs to pick up the pace of hazardous fuel treatments on the national forests. While that is true and the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program requires full funding, we live in time of shrinking budgets and the acute effects of climate change. Strategic use of resources will be critical.

In addition to forest fuel treatments, it is time to start taking personal responsibility, demanding appropriate county zoning and placing the enormous costs of fire fighting on the parties that encourage development in fire-prone forests.

That is the real work of preparing for wildfire in a climate-changed world.

2 thoughts on “Wild Earth Guardians on Zone of Agreement”

  1. Yep, blame the past to block the future. More anti-forestry rhetoric that ignores modern techniques and “the best available science”. They claim “…dry pine forests of the west were severely logged over…”, while at the same time, others say the Wallow Firestorm area was “pristine”. Obviously, both statements are wrong. Eco-groups seem to want to try expensive but, inadequate treatments around towns. They ignore the Endangered Species Act by letting habitats burn. They don’t care about “unintended consequences”, and the lives that are destroyed.

    Using the Wallow Firestorm, and others like it, as political footballs, is reprehensible and very damaging. The only zones of agreement I am seeing is the idea of clearing fuels within a tree length or two around towns and homes. Spot fires often travel MUCH farther than a mere tree length. The eco-groups continually blame homeowners for living where they do, when homes are burned. Who will take the blame for roasted baby owls? Who is wanting to “preserve” logged-over and fuels-choked forests? Who is pushing to eliminate lumber mills? Who is pushing for unlimited Wilderness? Who wants to “preserve” dead forests? The eco-groups seem to be fine with non-commercial treatments that do little for forest health or fire safety. They are also behind the “Let-Burn program” and prescribed fires that often lead to even more dead fuels in our forests. Covington documented old growth pine mortality from the buildup and burning of pine needles around the bases of trees, long ago. That revelation has been squelched by those with ulterior motives. Yes, there are now additional costs involved with prescribed fire in the west. That would include pulling pine needles away from trees, limbing up ladder fuels, hiring more qualified firefighters to do the burning when conditions are right (AND having them around in the fall, because many of them go back to school before the rains come), AND lawsuits from burns that escape control.

    Using individual prescribed fire projects to “pad the stats” of fuels reduction projects is very misleading. Rarely is one EVER litigated. Much of the acreage documented by the GAO is in the South, where prescribed fire works VERY well. There has got to be some sort of statistics about how many timber sales are litigated, and I think those figures would help people understand the litigation issue.

    And, just WHERE is “logging in the historic sense” going on these days?!?!?

    Yep, blame the past to block the future!!!


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