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Bush Forest Plan: Log it All

by Alexander Cockburn

Where did all the money go?
George W. Bush, fresh off a brush-clearing operation at his Crawford, Texas, ranch, snubbed the Earth Summit in Johannesburg, Africa, for a trip to Oregon, where he vowed to fight future forest fires by taking a chainsaw to the nation's forests and the environmental laws that protect them.

In the name of fire prevention, Bush wants to OK the timber industry to log off more than 2.5 million acres of federal forest over the next 10 years. He wants it done quickly and without any interference from pesky statutes such as the Endangered Species Act. Bush called his plan "the Healthy Forests Initiative." But it's nothing more than a giveaway to big timber that comes at a high price to the taxpayer and forest ecosystems.

Bush's stump speech was a brazen bit of political opportunism, rivaled, perhaps, only by his call to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling as a way to help heal the nation after the attacks of September 11. That plan sputtered around for a while, but didn't go anywhere in the end. But count on it: This one will.

Bush is exploiting a primal fear of fire that almost overwhelms the national anxiety about terrorists. In one of the great masterstrokes of PR, Americans have been conditioned for the past 60 years that forest fires are bad ... bad for forests. It's no accident that Smokey the Bear is the most popular icon in the history of advertising, far outdistancing Tony the Tiger or Capt. Crunch.

But the forests of North America were born out of fires, not destroyed by them. After Native Americans settled across the continent following the Wisconsin glaciation, fires became an even more regular event, reshaping the ecology of the Ponderosa pine and spruce forests of the Interior West and the mighty Douglas-fir forests of the Pacific Coast.

Forest fires became stigmatized only when forests began to be viewed as a commercial resource rather than an obstacle to settlement. Fire suppression became an obsession only after the big timber giants laid claim to the vast forests of the Pacific Northwest. Companies like Weyerhaeuser and Georgia-Pacific were loath to see their holdings go up in flames, so they arm-twisted Congress into pouring millions of dollars into Forest Service fire-fighting programs. The Forest Service was only too happy to oblige because fire suppression was a sure way to pad their budget -- along with the lobbying might of the timber companies they could literally scare Congress into handing over a blank check.

Where did all the money go? It largely went to amass a fire-fighting infrastructure that rivals the National Guard: helicopters, tankers, satellites, airplanes and a legion of young men and women who are thrust, often carelessly, onto the firelines. Hundreds of firefighters have perished, often senselessly.

Since the 1920s, the Forest Service fire-fighting establishment has been under orders to attack forest fires within 12 hours of the time when the fires were first sighted. For decades, there's been a zero tolerance policy toward wildfires. Even now, after forest ecologists have proved that most forests not only tolerate but need fire, the agency tries to suppress 99.7 percent of all wildfires. This industry-driven approach has come at a terrible economic and ecological price.

With regular fires largely excluded from the forests and grasslands, thickets of dry timber, small sickly trees and brush began to build up. This is called fuel loading. These thickets began a breeding ground for insects and diseases that ravaged healthy forest stands. The regular, low-intensity fires that have swept through the forests for millennia have now been replaced by catastrophic blazes that roar with a fury that is without historical or ecological precedent.

Even so, the solution to the fuel problem is burning, not logging. The Bush plan is the environmental equivalent of looting a bombed-out city and raping the survivors. The last thing a burned-over forest needs is an assault by chainsaws, logging roads and skid trails to haul out the only living trees in a scorched landscape. The evidence has been in for decades. The proof can be found at Mt. St. Helens and Yellowstone Park: Unlogged burned forests recover quickly, feeding off the nutrients left behind in dead trees and shrubs. On the other hand, logged-over burned forests rarely recover but persist as biological deserts, prone to mudslides, difficult to revegetate, and abandoned by salmon and deep forest birds, such as the spotted owl, goshawk and marbled murrelet. They exist as desolate islands inside the greater ecosystem.

Even worse, such a plan only encourages future arsonists. The easiest way to clear cut an ancient forest is to set fire to it first. Take a look at the major fires of the west this summer: The big blazes in Arizona and Colorado were set by Forest Service employees and seasonal firefighters, another big fire in California was started by a marijuana suppression operation, fires in Oregon, Washington and Montana have been started by humans.

In Oregon, more than 45,000 acres of prime ancient forest in the Siskiyou Mountains were torched by the Forest Service's firefighting crews to start a backfire in order to "save" a town that wasn't threatened to begin with. The fires were ignited by shooting ping-pong balls filled with napalm into the forest of giant Douglas-firs. By one estimate, more than a third of the acres burned this summer were ignited by the Forest Service as backfires. That's good news for the timber industry since they get to log nearly all those acres for next to nothing.

Far from acting as a curative, a century of unrestrained logging has vastly increased the intensity and frequency of wildfires, particularly in the West. The Bush plan promises only more of the same at an accelerated and uninhibited pace. When combined with global warming, persistent droughts and invasions by alien insects species (such as the Asian long-horned beetle) and diseases, the future for American forests looks very bleak indeed.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor August 28 2002 (

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