|WIT's World Ecology Report - Vol. 09, No. 1 - Critical Issues in Health and the Environment (WIT, 1997, 16 p.)|
The raging wildfires that charred great swathes of the Western part of the United States last summer and fall have sharpened the national debate over the causes of forest fires and how to prevent them. The timber industry claims restrictions on logging degrade forest health by prompting insect and disease outbreaks, and increase both the amount of flammable material and the likelihood of forest fires. Their solutions: more logging of living trees, along with burnt or diseased timber.
Environmentalists and a growing number of scientists argue, however, that logging itself is a major cause of declining forest health - and of the runaway forest fires that have caused so much ecological, economic and human tragedy.
Fire is an essential part of the natural cycle of birth, death and regeneration within healthy forests. By limiting the buildup of flammable materials, smaller periodic fires reduce the intensity of larger burns and limit their spread.
Fire also releases nutrients from the debris on the forest floor into the soil. It clears out undergrowth, allowing existing trees to grow healthy, straight and tall. The seeds of certain valued trees can only germinate when the heat of intense fire opens their protective cones. Forest fires can even help reduce pathogens and insect populations that attack trees.
For decades, however, U.S. Forest Service policy - embodied by Smoky the Bear with shovel in hand - admonish that "only you can prevent forest fires." The suppression of all fires was central to the government's forest management practices, with inevitable and unfortunate results. Dense, flammable undergrowth and dead wood accumulated on the forest floor. Many of the nation's forests, particularly in the West, were transformed into incendiary time bombs that are now exploding.
But factors other than fire suppression have increased the frequency and intensity of forest fires. One is commercial logging. A recent report on the Sierra Nevada region, published by the Centers for Water and Wildland Resources of the University of California, Davis, concluded: "Timber harvest, through its effects on forest structure, local microclimate and fuel accumulation, has increased fire severity more than any other recent human activity. If not accompanied by adequate reduction of fuels, logging (including salvage of dead and dying trees) increases fire hazard by increasing surface dead fuels and changing local microclimates."
Logging companies tend to cut the most commercially valuable timber - often the biggest, tallest trees that are most resistant to fire. By opening up the canopy, logging creates an environment that encourages a thick, fire-prone undergrowth of shrubs, saplings and weeds. Many, although not all, loggers leave behind sites filled with brush and other flammable/materials. The disappearance of the big trees also has a drying effect on the local climate, making the area more vulnerable to fire.
Increasingly, scientists believe these practices accentuate the risk of forest fire and increase the severity of fires, once started.
SOURCE: Jim Morin, The Miami
Despite these findings, timber industry representatives continue to insist the answer to the threat of catastrophic fires is more "salvage logging" and are pressing for legislation supposedly aimed at improving forest health by giving such logging top priority in large areas of America's public forests.
Many environmentalists and scientists, however, content the "forest health" campaign by the timber industry is merely a cynical effort to gain access to otherwise protected public forests, and would actually increase the danger of major fires. What then to do about forest fires?
First, prescribed burning within forests - controlled burns set deliberately to consume flammable debris that could fuel uncontrollable fires - should be employed to prevent catastrophic forest fires, as well as preserve forest health. Fortunately, a new "Federal Wildland Fire Policy" approved last December by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Agriculture Secretary Can Glickman makes such burning an accepted part of the tool chest of federal land managers. As a result, prescribed bums on federal lands are up 20% this year.
In those areas that already suffer from excessive air pollution, or where "controlled" burns may not be controllable, other solutions exits, including the thinning of underbrush, removal of flammable materials and construction of fire breaks.
Finally, great efforts need to be made at the state and local levels to limit the density of settlement in fire-prone areas in order to keep people out of harms way. In the meantime, however, we should not let the recent rash of catastrophic fires become an excuse to allow unrestricted logging in our national forests. It would be a tragic mistake to take the shovel from Smoky the Bear, only to hand him a chain saw instead.
SOURCE: Joshua Reichert, Pew Charitable Trust: Scripps Howard Service