North Kaibab Fuels Project Update

Larry Harrell lhfotoware at hotmail.com
Tue Jun 29 21:54:18 EST 2004


Tuesday, June 29, 2004   Washington Post

National Forests Fall Victim to Firefighting 
Plan to Protect Residences Costs Trees, Money 

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
 

NORTH KAIBAB NATIONAL FOREST, Ariz. -- Sharon Galbreath, who has spent
half of her 48 years fighting to preserve old-growth forests,
contemplated a 23-inch-wide old-growth ponderosa pine with a vibrant
blue slash across its trunk, indicating it is fated to be logged.

"I see something like this, I think, what are they doing?" she said,
standing in a clearing where towering old-growth trees soared skyward
amid hundreds of stumps -- blunt testimony to past logging.

The proposed auction of new logging rights here reflects a shift in
the federal government's forest management priorities that disturbs
environmentalists, who say it is giving the timber industry access to
previously off-limits forests under the guise of reducing the danger
of wildfires. And though the timber sales produce revenue for the
Treasury, the cost of administering the auctions is forcing the U.S.
Forest Service to defer other conservation projects.

In its environmental assessment of the proposed auction here, an area
dubbed East Rim because it rises from the eastern borders of the Grand
Canyon, the Forest Service cited the fire threat as the No. 2 reason
for going ahead: "The existing dead and live fuels have a definite
potential to feed a destructive wildfire, endangering firefighters and
the public alike and possibly consuming facilities and valuable
wildlife habitat." It did not mention that the closest real
residential community is 48 miles away.

Late last year, Congress made such timber sales easier when it passed
the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which will speed up approval of
projects that are aimed at reducing "hazardous fuels" on federal
lands. The measure won bipartisan support after two years of
devastating forest fires that alarmed lawmakers and citizens alike,
and it has been embraced by the Bush administration.

By 2000, forest fires had reached historic proportions. That year and
2002 rank as two of the worst wild land-fire seasons in 50 years. In
2002 alone, 88,458 fires burned roughly 7 million acres in states
including New Mexico, Oregon, Colorado and Arizona, destroying more
than 800 structures and killing 23 firefighters.

For years, federal and state policy had been to prevent fires on
public land, suppressing naturally occurring forest fires to protect
wildlife habitat and nearby communities. Over time, smaller trees
sprang up and served as a natural conduit for bigger fires. The
forests became more tightly packed, leaving little room for wildlife
to roam and for intermittent fires to exhaust themselves. Years of
drought exacerbated the problem.

This century of fire suppression was, in the words of Sen. Dianne
Feinstein (D-Calif.), who supported the restoration act, "a failed
policy."

Although the Forest Service has just begun to use its new powers under
the act, the agency is pursuing a new forest fire strategy across the
country. It estimates that 191 million acres of federal land, out of a
total of 800 million, pose a fire risk. This sort of analysis has
helped fuel the shift in federal policy in areas beyond the 20 million
acres directly subject to the act, and it is alarming
environmentalists who are trying to keep national forests off-limits
to loggers.

Galbreath, executive director of the Southwest Forest Alliance, said
the best fire prevention policy would be to clear out trees
immediately adjacent to residential communities and to log only the
smallest trees in national forests.

Until recently, Democrats had been fighting the Bush administration's
efforts to accelerate logging on public lands in the name of forest
fire prevention. But under pressure from constituents worried about
fires, senators such as Feinstein have found common ground with
Republicans on the issue, reaching an accord that will make it easier
to log 20 million federal acres over the next five years.

"You've got to go in and clear out the forests," Feinstein said in a
recent interview, dismissing criticism of the act. "Environmentalists
didn't like the bill. They do not want the trees cut."

The consensus in Washington on how to reduce the risk of fire on
federal land does not reach to such places as the Grand Canyon or the
Klamath-Siskiyou region of southern Oregon, where environmentalists
are fighting to halt pending sales that will fell tens of thousands of
trees. Bush administration officials call these protests misguided.

"We're engaged in an effort to return the forests and rangelands to a
point of ecological sustainability at which fire can play a more
natural role," said Mark Rey, Agriculture Department undersecretary
for natural resources and environment. "In order to do that
successfully, we have to reduce the amount of woody material in many
of these areas." Under his scenario, fires would not spread as far
because they would have fewer trees to consume.

But while both sides advocate removing the small trees that are the
least fire resistant and ecologically valuable, federal officials face
a problem. The logging industry has little interest in hauling away
only skinny trees that will produce little economically.

Jim Matson, a southwest-area consultant for the Portland, Ore.-based
American Forest Resource Council, said the timber industry "can't
afford to subsidize the nation's forests."

These timber sales come at a cost: The Forest Service's timber sale
program lost $947 million between 1992 and 2001, says the public
watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Federal officials are scaling back elsewhere: Just this month they
decided to postpone a year-long project aimed at protecting the
Anderson Mesa in Arizona's Coconino National Forest because they did
not have the money. "It's common knowledge a lot of dollars have been
reprogrammed to address the fuels-reduction issue," said Carol
Holland, the Coconino National Forest's analysis group leader.

A General Accounting Office report this month said the Forest Service
and Interior Department took more than $2.7 billion from other
programs to fund fire suppression over the past five years, which
"resulted in canceled and delayed projects, strained relationships
with state and local agency partners, and difficulties in managing
programs."

Sean Cosgrove, the Sierra Club's land protection program's Washington
representative, and other environmental advocates like to cite the
work of Forest Service scientist Jack D. Cohen, who concluded after
many experiments that the best fire prevention consists of clearing a
quarter-mile area around people's homes. Cohen argues that if
government officials pursued this course, they would stop fires from
burning residential areas because there would be no fuel to feed the
flames.

But many politicians reject this idea, saying forest fires have become
so big they stretch for miles regardless of the fuel in their path.
And some Forest Service officials say even if human communities
survive fires, these natural disasters can destroy critical habitat
and must be fought, no matter what.

To the dismay of people like Galbreath, the government is moving ahead
with many projects.

The $1.2 million timber sale she is fighting at East Rim will produce
8 million board feet of lumber from 146,000 trees that are nine inches
or less in diameter, but it will also fell 7,000 trees that are 18 to
24 inches in diameter, and 400 of the massive old-growth trees that
are 24 inches or more. Initially proposed under President Bill Clinton
to restore the forest and promote recreation, the logging plan was set
aside for several years but revived a few weeks after President Bush
took office.

Jonathan Beck, the environmental coordinator for the North Kaibab
Ranger District, said the sale will not only guard against fires but
also maintain old-growth trees and improve the habitat for the
northern goshawk, a raptor, and its prey.

"It's a forest health project," Beck said, adding that the old-growth
trees slated for cutting are being attacked by dwarf mistletoe, a
natural parasite that eventually kills trees. "The strategy of
thinning is pretty simple: You're taking out the smaller, denser trees
so you're allowing the larger trees to grow."

At the moment, the East Rim sale is at a standstill until Sept. 1
because the Justice Department has signed off on Galbreath's request
for a restraining order and sent it to an Arizona federal judge for
approval. But the Forest Service is moving forward with other thinning
projects.

Rick Miller, the Flagstaff manager for the Arizona Game and Fish
habitat program, said the pressure to push through such projects has
exacted some costs.

"The pressure is to get the work done," Miller said. "Right now,
almost everything is being driven by the fire risk reduction. Some of
it is very reasonable. And some of it's a problem."

Comment by poster: Some of us had a very long discussion about the
merits of this project. I do think that the Forest Service will have
all its ducks in a row in court. Fire alone cannot take out excess
trees in the 12-24" dbh range. (Of course, some people still cling to
the idea that there can never be any "excess trees" in our forests.)
I'm sure that many of those people live right here in the Bitterroot
valley, where I'm back for a third tour. I hear rumors that I might be
going to the Allegheny NF to work on some more of the blowdown
salvage. I hear it's not too much fun. I'm hoping that I'll be able to
continue working here in western Montana. My beat-up knee held up
pretty good on the extreme terrain with talus slopes today.

Larry,    mtn goat with a paintgun



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