TOPICS > Science

Forests and Fires

December 12, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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TERENCE SMITH: This year’s fire season has been one of the worst on record: Seven million acres charred, tens of thousands of residents evacuated or displaced, 23,000 homes and buildings destroyed, twenty-one firefighters killed.

SPOKESPERSON: The first thing I’d like to tell you today is that we’re dealing with an emergency situation.

TERENCE SMITH: Yesterday the Bush administration announced plans to streamline paperwork and procedures they say slow down steps to reduce fires in overgrown forests.

The new rules curtail impact studies that have been required under the National Environmental Policy Act before logging can take place; they apply to ten national forests, most of them in mountain and western states. The administration proposal also would allow logging and thinning to begin even while judicial appeals of such activities are being heard.

Agricultural Secretary Ann Veneman, whose department runs the U.S. Forest Service, said the objections of environmentalists would still be heard, but…

ANN VENEMAN, Secretary of Agriculture: We have a situation now which our chief of the forest services likes to call “analysis paralysis,” where you make a decision and it continues to get appealed into the courts, and that’s one of the problems is we then never get anything done. And so the buildup continues in these forests, and the result is the kind of fires that we had last year.

TERENCE SMITH: President Bush first offered his healthy forest initiative last summer in Oregon after touring the site of a major forest fire, but Congress rejected his proposals.

Yesterday, the president used his executive powers to enact the same proposals. He can do that on projects that don’t have an immediate impact on human environment, such as in remote forested areas.

Conservationists were quick to criticize. The National Resources Defense Council called easing the rules, “a payback to the timber industry” that would generate more logging revenues. Democratic Senator Jeff Bingaman from New Mexico, outgoing chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, said Mr. Bush was, “pursuing too much exemption from existing law” by skirting Congress.

Environmentalists have also been upset by other recent moves by the Bush administration, including permitting snowmobiling in Yellowstone Park, and easing incentives for emission cleanup by power plants and factories.

TERENCE SMITH: With me now are Michelle Ackermann, vice president of the Wilderness Society, an conservation group; and Terry Anderson, executive director of the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman, Montana. Due to video problems, Mr. Anderson joins us by phone and we apologize for that.

Welcome to you both. Michelle Ackermann, the administration argues that these new rules and these changes will streamline bureaucracy and actually safeguard forests. Do you see it that way?

MICHELLE ACKERMANN: Well, the primary priority in any work that we do on wildfire needs to be protection of western communities from wildfire. Right now, there are more than 9,400 communities across this country that have been identified as at risk from wildfire. 9,400, that’s a lot of communities, that’s a lot of work we need to do.

The president had a real opportunity to put a real push behind directing resources towards projects that would protect those communities. Unfortunately, his proposal does nothing of the sore. He’s chosen, instead, to essentially open our national forests not, not just ten of them, but the entire forest system, to logging without laws.

His proposal would make it so that projects on the national forests would not have to have any meaningful documentation, but what sort of environmental effects they would have. It would essentially also cut the public out of the process. America… our national forests are American treasures. We go to there to hunt and fish, to hike and be with our families and we have a right to have a say in how they’re managed.

Unfortunately, what the president would propose would take the public out of that process and not do anything to protect communities from wildfire.

TERENCE SMITH: Terry Anderson, taking the public out of the process — is that the way you see it?

TERRY ANDERSON: Hardly. I think it’s important to start with understanding what the problem actually is. The problem is a build-up of wood in the forests, or fuel as it’s called, that has resulted from fire suppression and reduced logging over the last 100 years and certainly the last 20 in the logging case. Climate certainly contributes partially to this, but the fuel reduction is the only thing we can do anything about.

What the president’s proposal does is allow the administrative branches to reduce some of the bureaucratic red tape that has crept into the process. One hundred percent of all the projects in the northern region that have been proposed in the past ten years have been appealed by environmental groups. And as one forester friend of mine put it, “with a 37-cent stamp, you can stop a logging operation.”

What the president’s trying to do with his administrative actions is to reduce some of this red tape. And I find it hard to believe that the environmental community is so upset over what he’s done.

For example, categorical exclusions are one of the main points of the president’s approach, and those were allowed under the National and always have been allowed under the National Environmental Protection Act. And as a result, what he’s doing is going back to the way the forests have been run for many, many years. All that really does is allow the president and the agencies to establish broad categories where they know there won’t be environmental impacts and move forward.

This does not apply to wilderness lands; it does not apply to wetlands, it does not apply to inventoried roadless lands, and the list goes on. One of the other things the president does in this– and I think this is important– is that this requires assessing the long-term risk of not taking actions, especially as it relates to endangered species.

And I should think that Michelle and her colleagues would love this. The biscuit fire in Oregon burned 150,000 acres of spotted owl habitat.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. Michelle, you’ve been shaking your head at some of these points, particularly when Terry Anderson talked about 100 percent of the projects in that area being appealed and slowed down.

MICHELLE ACKERMANN: You know, there have been recent studies by the government itself that have shown that that’s simply not the case, that the whole idea that the environmental community is appealing all these projects is simply false. But I would also say that no one — no one disagrees with the fact that we need to target our resources towards projects that are actually going to protect communities. No one is out there saying, we don’t want this to happen. Science has told us what needs to happen to protect these communities; we know what it is. We need to roll up our sleeves and get to work. I mean there are 9,400 communities that need this work done.

TERENCE SMITH: You’re talking about people who live near these forested areas and whose homes are in danger?

MICHELLE ACKERMANN: Absolutely. I mean and these are communities that have been identified by the government. The other thing that I would say is that I think that Mr. Anderson is grossly oversimplifying the condition of the forests. We have 192 million acres of forest land, and to say that it’s all overstocked and it all needs to be logged and that it’s all the same is a gross oversimplification. Different forests types are different. There is a little bit more fuel as a result of some of our policies in some forests, absolutely. Should we do something about it? Yes, we should. But should we be targeting our resources, our scarce resources and our priorities to all the work that has to be done around communities first? Absolutely. Does the president’s proposal do that? Absolutely not.

TERENCE SMITH: All right, Terry Anderson, what’s the practical consequence here? What will be different with these rule changes, in terms of the way we approach the forests?

TERRY ANDERSON: The main difference will be that the agencies, in particular the Forest Service and the Department of Interior, will be able to move forward with the thinning and replanting operations without a three-to five-year delays, which have been the average for these projects in the past. And that can make a big difference in how quickly we can move to apply the scarce resources, as Michelle described them, to the places they need to be applied.

TERENCE SMITH: And do you agree that those places include the communities that are at risk?

TERRY ANDERSON: Well, they certainly include those. But it’s naive to think that simply going out and clearing some brush on the edge of a forest is going to solve this problem. I have a mountain cabin. I have no doubt that clearing brush around my cabin will help some, but if we don’t do something to simply prevent some of the massive forest fires from starting, it won’t do any good for me to clear that brush.

And this is not just… this is not a clear-cutting operation by any means, but it is an effort aimed at trying to do some sensible logging and fuel reduction in those areas that aren’t just on the wild land urban interface, but those will clearly be included. So the notion that this is a Trojan horse for clear-cutting is just nonsense.

TERENCE SMITH: Michelle?

MICHELLE ACKERMANN: There’s absolutely no guarantee of how this will turn out. There’s no guarantee that this is not a clear-cutting operation.

And furthermore, the Forest Service’s own scientists have told us what we need to do to protect communities is focus on clearing the areas right around those communities. Second, I have to say that only 20 percent of the acres that have burned as a result of wildfires in the last decade have been on national forest land.

MICHELLE ACKERMANN: Only 17 percent of the fires that started this last year, in 2002, were on federal land. I mean this is simply not primary a national forest service problem.

Most of the area that burns is on state land, it’s on tribal land and frankly, it’s on private land. So throwing open the entire forest system to what is essentially logging without laws when the problem is based around communities and we’ve got more work than we can possibly do there and not enough money to do it, is just simply wrong and inaccurate.

TERENCE SMITH: Logging without laws, Terry Anderson?

TERRY ANDERSON: This is logging underneath it. This is logging under laws that have been in place for decades. So it’s not logging without laws and it’s not throwing open all the forest to this process. The one place I would agree with Michelle on is that we need something other than just these kinds of changes that will streamline the appeals process. And that has to be done, I think. But more importantly, we need to do some things to really change the incentives. And I fault the administration for not taking more action along these lines. They have proposed the long-term stewardship program and made little progress on that. They may blame about the Congress for that. But they need to do more to really increase long-term stewardship by people who are willing to get out, roll their sleeves up and actually manage these forests.

And secondly, and there are many groups, not just on the right, but on the left, who are saying, “we need to experiment with more decentralization of management.”

And what we see, I think, going on here is that the national environmental groups don’t want anything to do with decentralization because it takes them out of that process. But that’s what’s going to have to happen ultimately if we really want to have sensible management of our national forests and our public lands.

TERENCE SMITH: Okay. And a final word, Michelle?

MICHELLE ACKERMANN: Yeah, you know, for the last two years, a broad-based group of stakeholders, including the Western Governors Association, the Timber Association, conservation groups, including the Wilderness Society, the Cattlemen’s Association, basically everyone who has an interest in wildfire work has come together and put forward a plan called the Western Governors Association Plan.

It’s a big collaborative effort, and that plan specifically says that there is no need to change existing environmental laws to accomplish what we need to accomplish to protect communities. The president’s proposal would undermine the basic bedrock of environmental protection that this country has had for more than 30 years and would not protect western communities from wildfire, and that’s the bottom line.

TERENCE SMITH: All right, we’re going to have to leave it there. Michelle Ackerman and Terry Anderson, thank you both.

MICHELLE ACKERMANN: Thank you.

TERRY ANDERSON: Thank you.