|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 swaths of the West last summer and fall are only a warm-up to much larger, more costly, and more destructive events that will visit that region.
Four million acres were hit by wildfire in 1996. My analysis of conditions in the West suggest that 4 million acres will be close to the yearly average for the next decade or two. Public costs for fire fighting could average from one-half to $1 billion dollars a year; property damages will add to that cost.
It cannot be "revented", at least not in the sense of "Prevent Forest Fires". It is, however, possible to reduce damage in the highest-risk areas.
National forests and other federal lands make up much of the forest that is at greatest risk. On those lands, treatment is proceeding far too slowly to reduce the danger. The problem is not a lack of understanding or a failed agency policy, it is adverse economics and political opposition.
The economics result from the huge land areas involved; the remoteness of many places that need treatment; the limited value of the wood that needs to be removed; and the reduced budgets and staff of the federal agencies. Political opposition stems from the growing chorus to end all timber harvesting on public lands, and the bitter controversies over salvaging trees killed in the 1992 and 1994 fires.
While political opponents become entrenched, scientists were taking a hard look at the underlying conditions. The consensus is that many western forests are in terrible condition, vastly overstocked with trees, and subject to large and intense wildfires. Much of the degradation is due to past management practices - logging, grazing, and fire suppression - that date back to the 19th century.
Without treatment these forests are susceptible to fires so hot that even large trees are killed. In some places the soil will be so heat-damaged that it could lead to the beginnings of desertification (where the land stops supporting much vegetation of any kind). Treatment options are known, but they must be skillfully applied to the highest-hazard areas, and soon.
Effort spent placing blame on the past does little to help answer the critical questions, "what should we do now?" And simplistic answers like "let it burn," "increase salvage logging," or "stop all logging," miss the point. Each forest has its own situation, and treatment needs to be designed to fit. The worst thing would be a "one-size-fits-all" solution from Congress.
Adequately treating high-risk areas will require a lot of work. That work which includes' brush and debris removal, prescribed fire, and erosion control in addition to the removal of surplus trees, will nearly all need to be done by the forest products industry.
Who else has the people, skills, and machinery? Environmentalists are skeptical of anything the industry proposes or is involved in, but there aren't many options. Federal agencies aren't equipped for the task - they barely have enough people to plan and administer projects.
If the public wants better forests and fewer disasters on federal lands, there are several things that Congress should be pressed to do, including:
· Change liability regulations on the federal agencies. Using prescribed fire is risky business, and even with the new federal promise to do more of it the current liability and reimbursement procedures remain an obstacle.
· Change timber sale procedures. Selling timber to the highest bidder sounds like a good business, but it is a prescription for having the most valuable trees removed rather than having the forest treated right. Contacts should pay loggers to do what is needed to restore forest health. Anything that can be sold should be sold for fair prices to help pay the costs of treatment. Innovative private foresters do this all the time, but federal regulations make it nearly impossible on federal lands.
· Encourage other uses for low-quality wood that needs to come out of the forest. Biomass burners can make electricity, conserve fossil fuels, and reduce air pollution, but they can't compete at today's natural gas prices. When the choice is between burning biomass cleanly at a small cost, or letting it burn in major wildfires at a huge cost, and with huge pollution releases and soil damage, the choice seems clear.
· Shorten the time, paperwork, and legal wrangling in making a federal land decision. That's controversial, as we all cherish our right to participate in decisions that affect public lands. But we have to find a better way to let people be part of the action, and still get some action done. Gridlock is not serving the forests or the people of America well.
SOURCE: Neil Sampson, senior fellow at American Forests, the country's oldest national citizen's conservation organization; Scripps Howard Service