Monday, July 08, 2002

Weighing In on the Fires

This column ran on a Monday, instead of Sunday, because in late-breaking news Friday, it turned out that there actually was an environmentalist lawsuit, filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, over a forest-thinning project in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. So I had to re-write three paragraphs, because I'd been told by my friends at the Sierra Club (imagine, getting burned by the Sierra Club, if only metaphorically) that the only lawsuit had involved a site near Flagstaff, well out of the fire zone. I get countless emails from the Center for Biological Diversity, just not the one I actually needed for a column until after I wrote it. Luckily, Bob Schuster was able to insert my revisions, but not until Monday; the Sunday paper actually prints on Saturday morning.

My chagrin lasted about three days, because the following Wednesday, the Arizona Republic reported that the Hull administration pressed the Forest Service, successfully, to stop a prescribed burn in the fire area due to alleged health effects. (Our governor, Jane Hull, had been accusing environmentalists of causing the fire by excessive litigation until her own efforts came to light. Now it's too difficult to draw cause-and-effect conclusions.) It turned out that the Hull administration wanted to stop the fire-prevention project entirely due to complaints by nearby residents, but the Center for Biological Diversity lawsuit didn't object to thinning, but filed suit because they saw the fire-reduction project as a ruse to log older-growth trees; they'd withdrawn their objection to thinning the smaller trees. So now that Hull can be attacked for her anti-fire efforts, we've gone on to other matters here in Arizona. Of course, with the arrest of a suspect for starting the Rodeo fire, both fires were started deliberately, and the whole root-cause argument has been kind of mooted anyway. (My editor did cut the line that Hull knows as much about forest fuels as about alt-fuels, and either way we get burned.)

East Valley Tribune, July 1, 2002

Here’s the upside to blaming the Rodeo-Chediski fire on environmentalists. If facts this skimpy and causation this confused justify that claim, then conservatives better watch for what gets pinned on them .

Blaming the enviros means ignoring a century of fire suppression, leaving forests brimming with fuel. Several years of drought have resulted in current tinder-dry conditions. Historical records indicate that Southwestern multiyear droughts are the rule, not the exception.

Cattle grazing--not just “overgrazing”--eliminated the vast grasslands formerly key to forest ecology. University of Arizona professor Thomas Swetnam’s tree-ring studies show that prior to this century, the typical Arizona ponderosa pine forest burned once or twice per decade. The grasslands carried these frequent, lower-intensity fires, with flames under 3 feet, which prevented buildups of dead branches and other fuels. But today’s fires leap into the crowns of mature trees--trees mature enough to resist lower-intensity fires, but no match for an inferno.

Logging practices haven’t helped, either. The most valuable timber comes from the fire-resistant, old-growth trees, best able to withstand regular fires. The most dangerous trees, the small-diameter ones (12 inches or less), have the least commercial potential. And “mechanical harvesting” techniques often leave more fuel scattered on the forest floor and jeopardize adjoining tree stands.

The fire patterns of the past centuries changed because of people settling the West, bringing their cattle last century and building their dream homes in this one. As Dr. Swetnam noted, people love living in pine forests, just as they love living on picturesque flood plains, coastlines, and earthquake faults. People want to live among the trees, not remove them from near their homes. Fire-resistant metal roofs just don’t look as nice, and nobody wants “prescribed burns” in their neighborhood.

Gov. Jane Hull claimed that lawsuits have stopped the Forest Service from preventing fires. Unfortunately, according to the General Accounting Office, of 1,671 Forest Service fire-prevention projects nationally, a grand total of 20 got challenged in court--not always by environmentalists, but also by industry or tourism interests, or by neighbors who wanted the project not in their back yards.

Only one in Arizona, which would have cleared both large and smaller trees from a largely previously-logged area, faced court challenge. Anyway, litigation could play no real role in the Rodeo-Chediski fires, both of which started on an Indian reservation, where tribal sovereignty exempted activities from environmental lawsuits.

But never mind the facts, for some people it’s just too enjoyable to blame the enviros, as if they’ve been running things and Jane Hull, Jon Kyl, George Bush, and the long-standing GOP majorities in Congress and the state Legislature have no responsibility for anything.

If opposing commercial logging of large, old pines in remote areas, instead of culling the smaller, more flammable trees near communities, and one lawsuit involving some 10,000 acres (out of 300,000) largely previously logged are enough to condemn the environmentalists, then aren’t the legislators, president, and governors who haven’t sufficiently funded the Forest Service and the new National Fire Plan even more responsible?

If fires are a problem caused by a century of misguided policies, have many root causes, and will take much time and money to solve, then isn’t each member of Congress, which has increased the responsibilities of the Forest Service without increasing its resources accordingly, actually more responsible?

It’s going to take money, folks. There’s no way to fix a century’s worth of problems with proceeds from one-shot timber sales. Is it more important to save the forests, or to abolish the estate tax? Guess which matters more to our delegation, the forests or multimillion-dollar estates.

Sure, let’s hold environmentalists accountable. Just make sure to hold everybody else responsible accountable as well.

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