An editorial from The Oregonian on western wildfires

Daniel B. Wheeler dwheeler at
Tue Aug 21 23:43:10 EST 2001

>From The Oregonian, Aug. 21, 2001, p B6 (editorial)

A warning from Kitzhaber
	Do member of Congress pay any attention to those talking-head news
shows on the TV networks every weekend? Let's hope they at least were
watching Sunday when Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber explained the facts of
life about wildfires in the West.
	Kitzhaber's remarks on ABC's "This Morning" program were stunning in
their simplicity: Lives and money will continue to be wasted unless
this nation moves aggressively to improve the health of Northwest
forests. The federal government, he warned, must break its reactive
pattern of making emergency appropriations after massive Western
blazes each summer. Instead, Congress must begin making long-term
investments to "save the country billions of dollars, and I would say
hundreds of lives over time."
	That's not just Kitzhaber's personal opinion. It's the strong,
unified position of the Western Governors Association, which is
pressing federal officials to embrace a 10-year national wildfire
strategy. Modeled after Oregon's Blue Mountain demonstration project,
the strategy is aimed at rehabilitating burned lands and removing
hazardous fuels that have built up on federal lands in part because of
a decades-old policy of suppressing all wildland fires.
	The initiative by the bipartisan group of 14 governors includes a
pair of hot-button approaches: selective logging - anathema to many
environmentalists - and controlled burns - distrusted by many who
remember last year's disastrous prescribed fire that raged out of
control and burned more than 200 homes at Los Alamos, N.M.
	The governors' proposal for thinning public forests is already under
attack. "They want to reationalize more logging under the pretense it
might reduce fuel loading," one Southern Oregon activist was widely
quoted as saying Sunday.
	Pretense? There was no pretense in the fires that continued to ravage
nearly a half-million acres of wildland in the West this week.
	Kitzhaber offers a much more pragmatic view of the painful, expensive
challenge facing the nation. "There's a great opportunity to bridge
the gaps here between the industry and the environmental community,
and produce a very healthy ecosystem out here," the Democratic
governor told ABC hosts Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts.
	Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Interior Secretary Gale Norton
have pledged support for the Western governors' plan, so the Bush
administration is obviously listening.
	Let's hope Congress is, too.

COMMENT BY POSTER: It's nice that The Oregonian's editorial board is
now backs reduction of fuel loads. The squabble many forest managers
_should_ have is the method involved. Prior attempts to reduce fuel
loads have invariably amounted to high-grade theivery of old-growth
trees, leaving vast quantities of densely-packed young trees behind.
Such scenarios are perfect for the forest fires currently profligate
on national forest and BLM lands.

Why? Timber companies obviously want to make a profit. Thinning trees
is not, generally speaking, profitable. Especially when those thinned
stands are not on your own property. Wise long-term management would
certainly aim to reduce biomass build-ups, through selective harvests
or other means. But when a stand is even-aged, it may be necessary to
remove 75% to 15% of the total biomass, depending on the age of the
stand. Much of that biomass will be small-diameter woody debris - less
than 12 inches diameter. For the amount of wood removed compared the
labor involved (I can speak from first-hand experience) makes no sense
economically for the short-term. Timber owners seldom have any
economic reason to reduce these biomass buildups, preferring to let a
wildfire or parasitic infestation take its course in reducing the
number of standing stems.

It may be impossible for someone outside of the PNW to understand
this. There are areas which contain upwards of 100,000 stems per acre.
Over time, only 10-15 of these 100,000 stems will remain to form
"old-growth" trees in perhaps 300-500 years time. It's nice to say
debris needs to be thinned. It's quite another for Congress to release
funds for the forest service or other agencies to actually _do_ what
many foresters in the FS, BLM, or even privately have known for many
years. And without the release of money, the work is unlikely to get
done. This is just a subtle reminder for all those suburbanites who
suddenly want to get "away from it all", and have the peace and
serenity of forested surroundings, only to find themselves in the
middle of a forest fire.

Posted as a warning by
Daniel B. Wheeler

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