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Bad Management Of Wilderness Fires

Preventing Forest Fires

... Since the bill was signed into law last fall, some of those fears have come to pass. True, more money is being spent: This year, about $230 million is earmarked for hazardous fuel reduction, and the budget proposal for next year -- at $266 million -- contains slightly more still. But of the 1.6 million acres of land designated to be "treated" by the U.S. Forest Service this year, only 1 million, or just over 60 percent, will be close to homes and communities, where fire prevention is most important and effective. Next year, the percentage is projected to be slightly lower -- while money targeted at projects on state and private lands is scheduled to drop. Although the Forest Service denies it, environmentalists say that other logging projects are being justified in part for their "hazardous fuel reduction" value, when in fact they are simply intended for cutting large trees. At least two projects in California, for example, have been held up by lawsuits alleging that logging of large trees is increasing the risks of fire, and controversy has swirled around projects in Oregon as well.

Meanwhile, money is not lacking for other kinds of projects. Under the president's budget, money for "forest products" -- subsidies for commercial logging -- is also scheduled to go up, from $265 million this year to $274.3 million next year. Little of this money has much to do with fire prevention. Some $5 million has been authorized for planning logging projects in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, for example (where the administration has suspended rules against logging in roadless areas), which is hardly a firefighting priority.

The claim at the end of the first quoted paragraph is interesting. The assumption in all the talk about lawsuits holding up fuel reduction projects is that the projects are justified from a fuel-reduction standpoint, and the challenge is based on valuing environmental aspects more than pure fire safety. But this editorial is alleging that the projects are bad projects to begin with. Now, "at least two" isn't very many, but the claim takes on more weight if you take the view that nearly all of the wilderness projects are unlikely to be necessary from a fire safety standpoint. It's become accepted practice that micro-level landscape modifications can drastically reduce the chance that your house will burn down, modifications on the order of a few hundred feet of "defensible space" cleared around your house (assuming a relatively fire-safe home construction).

Thinking about it more, though, I think we should hesitate to immediately condemn wilderness fuel reduction out of hand. There are several arguments. First, there's the need for a once-off fuel reduction to undo the damage done by years of fire suppression. You can't just let some forests go because their ecology has been so modified. Fire ecology is a prime case of "complex systems" multi-equilibrium ecology -- in these environments, you can't count on there being a single climax condition that nature will bounce back to after modification. It could easily "flip" into a different -- and perhaps undesirable -- arrangement.

The case for continuing management of wilderness areas is that homes burning down is not the only harm done by fire. Smoke plumes and disruption of roads are also key, and can be affected by fires burning well away from buildings. Given the built environment that we've created, we can't (or won't) necessarily tolerate the mid-scale "natural" fires that would come from leaving the wilderness alone.

The big question, then, is whether the wilderness projects are actually improving the fire situation, or just enriching logging companies. With this administration, I tend to suspect the latter.


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