FORESTS: U.S. Announces Flawed Policy to Address Raging Natural Wildfires

USA: FORESTS: U.S. Announces Flawed Policy to Address Raging NaturalWildfires

Source:  Forest Conservation Portal, 18 August 2001

Dozens of major wildfires are crackling their way across the Western United States, as has occurred naturally for millennia. A new agreement between federal agencies and the governors in 10 Western states has been reached on how to prevent future wildfires. The plan has some positive elements, including an emphasis upon managed burns to restore natural disturbance regimes, that if properly implemented may contribute positively to the well being of forest ecosystems.
But there are many environmentally regressive aspects to the plan; and given the ecological ignorance of the Bush administration, it is unlikely to be reasonably implemented. It is becoming widely accepted that past fire suppression created unnatural fuel conditions in our forests. The remedy under the plan is to mechanically thin these forests to lower their fuel loads, the benefits of which are far from certain. Recent research suggests that thinning as a means to pursue fuel reduction is only likely to have an impact in forests where crown fires were historically absent or infrequent. Highintensity crown fires have long been known to be a natural occurrence in higher-elevation forests in America’s Western states. A commentary piece below asserts, “we now know them to be a natural part of lower-elevation forests as well. In fact, these fires are essential to maintaining a healthy forest ecosystem.” In order to finance this dubious forest-thinning scheme, the Bush administration is likely to allow the logging of large trees as well.
This is the real basis for the Bush/Norton forest-thinning remedy for wildfires – political payback to extractive resource industries.
There is strong evidence that intensive logging causes fires to increase in frequency and intensity. Commercial logging methods increase the occurrence of wildfires by fragmenting forests and opening up the forest canopy through road construction and removing big, fire-resistant trees. Timber companies must not be allowed to use fire prevention as justification for increased logging, which would only exacerbate the problem.
The new wildfire policy ignores the reality that in many cases the best policy would be to let the fires burn. Lightening strikes cause most of the fires. Once started, firefighters and public land managers can do little to stop some natural crown fires from occurring. America’s forests are naturally wild and often hazardous places. We have chosen to protect them from development and must in general accept the hazards along with the benefits that come from such protection.
Only recently has residential development in the hazard zone near public lands become problematic. Those constructing building next to natural forests – in many cases to enjoy the rustic, natural scenery – have a responsibility to use readily available techniques to fireproof their homes. If their structures are not defensible, why should the public bear the cost of protecting them, and firefighters risk their lives? Why should the management of public forests be changed to protect carelessly constructed private property? The $ 2 billion National Fire Plan effectively shifts the cost of protecting what are in many case trophy luxury homes to the public and to our forests.
This plan needs to be redirected to letting fires burn naturally, widely using prescribed burns that are in line with historical disturbance regimes as the primary means to reduce fuel loads, scaling down plans for mechanical thinning and ensuring no logging of large trees occurs. Again, under no circumstances must timber companies be allowed to use fire prevention as justification for chopping down large, mature trees. Amazingly, many newspapers are increasingly advocating these reasonable policies that are based upon ecological science and common sense rather than upon political expediency. 

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