Burning Issues

  |  Gorp.com

Altered and unhealthy forests represent a problem that cannot be solved in the short term. Getting a start on the problem now is desirable, but little is happening. Decades of collusion among big timber interests, western politicians and the U.S. Forest Service created profound alienation in the conservation community, as western forests were roaded and clearcut with no regard for ecosystem health. This regrettable legacy endures, undermining efforts to build consensus on forest management policies.

Many environmentalists understand, for example, the potential benefits of selective cutting and “thinning” overgrown, sickly forests. But they don't believe the USFS can do the job without going too far or screwing up in other ways: allowing timber companies to haul off the biggest (and most profitable) trees in an area; failing to follow through on environmental guidelines protecting sensitive species; building more roads than necessary to conduct a thinning or salvage operation.

Prescribed burning—a controlled, man-made fire set to burn through a predetermined area—is another highly beneficial tool for improving forest health. Prescribed burns are routinely conducted on national wildlife refuge lands to improve the health of grasslands and other ecosystems. But the social and political hurdles to setting prescribed burns in tinder-dry forests are daunting, especially when wildfires are chewing up millions of acres and destroying homes.

These and other factors—such as increasingly diverse, politically fragmented constituencies of forest users—have led to forest management gridlock.

Opposing Forces
Rural communities in and around public forests have experienced a steady decline in economic benefits from logging. Steady suburbanization and cultural diversification have further weakened their influence on forest policy at the highest levels. These depressed communities are primed for demagogues, who convert pain and frustration into hostile rhetoric. Forest Service employees or conservationists living in rural areas are ostracized or threatened; anyone who might confess to a dislike of clearcuts is an enemy. The “shovel brigade” incident in Nevada earlier this year was a new low point. In the absence of leadership and clout, residents in rural areas fall back upon an argument of territorial sovereignty: We live here, we know the forests, and we know what is best. There is often merit to this argument, though the knowledge and willingness needed to solve forest health issues seldom occurs within the vocal minority.

Environmental groups aren't much better. Routinely litigating any proposal for forest management regardless of its merits, they create an enormous backlog of work for USFS personnel, delaying, often for years, a final verdict—and then appealing it again. It's been said that since the 1980s, management of public forests has been carried out by the judiciary rather than the scientific community. Tactics are tactics; litigation has halted more than a few poorly considered timber harvests, but at best it is a weak substitute for building solutions, and at worst it can stifle innovation, which clearly is needed.

The Grand Canyon Trust in 1999 spent $500,000 for scientists to develop an ecosystem restoration plan for the beleaguered forests surrounding Flagstaff. A very ambitious, experimental approach targeting 9,100 acres, the plan included, among many other things, selective cutting of overabundant, pole-size ponderosa pines. The plan was halted in the courts by a coalition of seven area environmental groups. Opposition was led by John Talberth of Forest Guardians, who called the proposal “sloppy.” One year later, with wildfires consuming western forests at historic levels, Talberth was quoted in an Associated Press article as saying even prescribed burning in fuel-laden forests wasn't enough—selective harvesting had to be part of the solution. Talberth's conversion may or may not last. Taylor McKinnon of the Grand Canyon Trust expects the plan to be opposed in court yet again. “Environmental groups often function as obstructions,” he says. “We're asking environmental groups to support a solution. Doing nothing is an ecological loss, a social loss, an economic loss.”

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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