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23.5.03

Bush Pushes Forest Bill, Green Groups Balk

The Bush administration on Tuesday rallied behind a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives [passed later in the day] that aims to reduce the risk of wildfires in U.S. forests, but green groups said the proposal promoted logging at the expense of environmental protection.

Introduced by Rep. Scott McInnis, a Colorado Republican, the bill would ease procedural requirements needed to remove underbrush and trees on 20 million acres of U.S. forest land susceptible to wildfires. In 2002 more than 7 million acres of forest were burned.

... "One reason for these deadly fires is found in decades of well-intentioned, but misguided, forest policy which has allowed dangerous undergrowth to build up on the forest floor," Bush told reporters at the White House.


Bush has the right diagnosis. Fire suppression is not a sustainable practice, and the longer we adhere to it the more disastrous will be the fires that slip through and the greater will be the ecological damage. Opponents of the Healthy Forests bill need to acknowledge that point so that the debate can center on the real issue: whether Bush's prescription is appropriate to the problem. I'll grant that the long history of fire suppression, and the attendant buildup of fuels, require some sort of "unnatural" intervention in the short term to reach a point where stopping fire suppression is no longer disastrous, and may be required for some areas (those immediately surrounding towns, for example), where even controlled (preemptive) burns are too much of a risk to people and property, in the long term. But for most areas in the long term, switching from fire suppression to brush clearance is not the healthiest path for forests. Fires do more than simply remove dead wood. The heat is necessary for the reproductive cycles of many plants in fire-prone areas. And ash recycles important nutrients. I also wonder about the long-term prospects of a system that would require loggers to remove small trees, debris, and brush, which are the most significant fuels but are economically useless.

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