Holding Back a Firestorm

In this summer’s hubbub to develop government spending bills, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle quietly slipped into a bill language exempting his home state of South Dakota from environmental regulations and lawsuits, in order to allow logging in an effort to prevent forest fires.

The move, when discovered by fellow lawmakers, angered Western legislators whose states were forced to obey those same rules as they battled catastrophic wildfires.

“What’s good for the Black Hills should be good for every forest in the United States,” said Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican and chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee. In late July, Washington environmentalists were anticipating a rider to limit environmental safeguards on timber fuels projects, possibly from Sen. Craig’s office.

Daschle said the language to expedite logging is essential to reduce the timber growth that can fuel wildfires. “As we have seen in the last several weeks, the fire danger in the Black Hills is high and we need to get crews on the ground as soon as possible to reduce this risk and protect property and lives,” Daschle said in a statement after a House-Senate conference committee agreed on the language.

The language was tucked inside the defense supplemental spending bill, and is not subject to notice, comment or appeal requirements under the Appeals Reform Act, nor is it subject to judicial review by any U.S. court.

Similar amendments to government spending bills were offered last year by Sen. Craig. And like the current amendments, they permitted management that circumvented the environmental safeguards required by the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.

At the time, observers criticized the amendments as the most serious congressional attack on environmental laws protecting national forests since the Salvage Rider of 1995. The Salvage Rider, which also followed a spate of major western fires, circumvented environmental standards and was later denounced by Vice-President Al Gore as one of the worst mistakes of the Clinton administration’s first term.

“I am opposed to the kinds of “solutions” that are being proposed in the budget amendments by these Western senators,” said Dr. Bob Zahner, Forestry Professor Emeritus, Clemson University. “Such amendments send a signal to the management agencies that Congress wants post-fire salvage logging and fuel reduction projects to move ahead as fast as possible, regardless of environmental consequences. That’s a politician’s approach, not an ecologist’s.”

Dr. Zahner contends that relatively moist conditions in Southern Appalachian forests naturally limit the spread of fire. An abundance of northeast-facing slopes and cool, moist coves provide natural brakes on the spread of fire. “Prescriptions for forest management need to be done forest by forest, with a look at the unique species assemblages and ecological features of each,” he said.

Although problems on opposite sides of the country require different solutions, they do share similar origins. Human intervention against the natural outbreak and range of fires has in some instances allowed the build up of inordinately high fuel levels. In addition, the absence of fire has challenged the health of species that depend on fire for their persistence.

Even so, the threat of fire is fodder for Southern Appalachian politicians who pay attention to forest issues. On June 13, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., issued a news release around his testimony before the House Forestry Subcommittee. In his testimony, presented along with Mark Rey, former timber industry lobbyist and now Agriculture undersecretary that oversees the Forest Service, Goodlatte portrayed the recent Marbleyard fire in the George Washington National Forest in Virginia as an example of how environmental laws put America’s national forests at risk. Goodlatte said that fuel for the fire was present because “‘analysis paralysis’ has successfully stopped management.”

Conservationists say this perspective is the same industry propaganda that says healthy forests can’t exist unless they are logged. Dave Muhly, associate regional representative of the Sierra Club-Appalachian Region, said “it’s unfortunate that, as naturally as summer follows spring, wildfires are followed by cynical attempts by industry to advance its own agenda on the backs of the property damage and fear that follow.”

Many regional scientists agree that Western fire solutions don’t fit our Appalachian forests. They say that many forests in the West are ecologically adapted to infrequent, severe fires which can burn large areas. In contrast, many of our forest types are adapted to frequent, light fires, especially along ridge-tops, where lightening provides the initial spark, but where moist forests along lower slopes and valley bottoms prevent most fires from gaining ground.

They argue that such fires can be allowed to burn — or even set deliberately and controlled — thus maintaining the native plant communities which depend on fire for their persistence. A program of controlled fire in Linville Gorge, for example, helped to restore populations of rare plants that were threatened with extinction when fire was excluded for several decades.

Dr. Ed Buckner, retired Professor of Forestry from University of Tennessee, said last year that the proposed amendments aimed at fuel reduction bore little relevance to the decline of native forest types here, which was a major issue confronting the southern forests.

“The politicians in Washington don’t have the background to understand the details of our situation,” he said. “If we don’t start talking about how to maintain our native pine ecosystems, those forests will disappear and the only pines will be in plantations. Georgia and Alabama will be one big loblolly monoculture.”

Fiscal watchdogs are concerned as well. According to a new report from the Oregon-based Thoreau Institute, $2 to $3 billion a year that the Forest Service and other federal land agencies spend on fires is mostly wasted. Last year, Congress awarded the Forest Service’s 38 percent increase in its annual budget, mostly for fire, on the theory that spending more money now will reduce future fires and fire costs. But that’s a promise the Forest Service can’t keep, according to Thoreau Institute economist Randal O’Toole.

“The real problem with fire is not built-up fuels but the near-blank check that Congress has given the Forest Service to put out fires and for other fire-related activities,” says O’Toole. “The West has always had major fires, and it always will have major fires. Firefighters say the Forest Service puts out fires by dumping money on them. Now Congress is dumping money on the Forest Service in the hope fires will go away — but they won’t.”


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