- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 28, 2002

Special Report

DENVER When Dave Bunnell joined the Forest Service in 1967, Smokey Bear was more popular than Lassie and few professionals were as beloved as forest rangers.
"It used to be almost like hero worship," recalled Mr. Bunnell, who began his career as a green 24-year-old ranger in Montana's Flathead National Forest. "Everybody wanted to be a ranger. You were able to work in the woods every day, you were fighting fires, you were protecting nature; I was so proud I could barely get my shirt buttoned."
Those days have gone the way of the Johnson administration and the 6-cent postage stamp. During his 35-year career, Mr. Bunnell has watched public opinion of his agency sink under the weight of criticism over its environmental record, its forest-management practices and, most recently, its inability to prevent a rash of record-breaking wildfires.
When the local ranger walks into a town meeting these days, Forest Service employees say, he's just as likely to be greeted with sneers as handshakes.
"Somewhere along the road, things changed. Now, people scorn us," said Mr. Bunnell. "Rather than being welcomed, you're constantly challenged people ask, 'What the hell were you guys thinking?' We've become personas non grata."
Those problems have been magnified by the devastating fire season this year. With nightly news footage of raging, uncontrolled Western wildfires as inevitable as Tiger Woods' winning golf tournaments, investigating what ails the 97-year-old agency has emerged as a hot topic for Congress and the administration.

Caught in the cross fire

Some reasons for the agency's gradual drop in prestige are obvious. After nearly a century of unparalleled success at snuffing blazes, the Forest Service appears suddenly unable to stop wildfires from raging out of control.
The agency's recent history shows a disturbing trend toward ever-worsening fire seasons, starting in 1988. That year the number of acres burned by fire tripled to 3.4 million, breaking the agency's record by more than 1 million acres.
Two years later, the record was surpassed again when the burned acreage reached 3.7 million. By 2001, the acreage record had been broken three more times, and it's likely to be broken again by the end of this fire season.
With the 2002 fire season not yet half over, 3.3 million acres have burned, putting it on a path to surpass the 2000 fire season, which destroyed 6.3 million acres. The cost of fighting the fires this year is expected to reach $1 billion.
That firefighters stand accused of setting the two worst fires this summer, the Hayman in Colorado and the Rodeo-Chediski in Arizona, hasn't helped the agency's image. The irony is that firefighting training, techniques and equipment have never been better, said Mark Rey, agriculture undersecretary for natural resources and environment, who oversees the Forest Service.
"The Forest Service is actually improving its firefighting dramatically," he said.
Rep. Scott McInnis, Colorado Republican, has nothing but praise for the agency's handling of this year's catastrophic wildfires. "The Forest Service has delivered very effectively," said Mr. McInnis, a former firefighter.
"You have to remember, they're up against tremendous odds," said Mr. McInnis, who is chairman of the House Resources forests and forest health subcommittee. "They've got a drought; they've got the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society doing everything they can to stop thinning projects; they've got 70 million acres that haven't been thinned in years. And then they've got arson."
But there was good news this weekend, as officials grew optimistic that firefighters had repulsed the threat to California's famous giant sequoias.
A wildfire that was threatening the oldest and largest trees on Earth is more contained and spreading east, toward isolated wilderness, and away from homes and the Sequoia National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service said.
"We've got around 30 percent of the fire now contained, so we're looking better from the 5 to 10 percent containment we had early Friday," spokeswoman Pam Stieler said yesterday.
Mr. Rey cites three factors for the worsening fire scenario, none of which involves the agency's firefighting ability. The most obvious is the weather: The West is approaching the middle years of a long-term drought cycle that has left the forests tinder dry and ripe for burning.
Another factor is the region's explosive population growth, which has pushed housing developments from the suburbs to what's known as the wildland-urban interface. Many new Westerners are living on the outskirts of forests but have not taken precautions to shield themselves from fire, such as tiling their roofs with tar instead of flammable wooden shingles.
"It's not uncommon to go into homes where there's a half-inch of pine needles on top of a wooden-shingle roof," Mr. Rey said. "All you need is a spark to send the whole thing up in flames. It's sad, but firefighters will sometimes do triage in those neighborhoods; they'll put red ribbons on the doors to indicate that they don't have time to do the work to save it."
But by far the most critical factor, he says, is the massive buildup of trees and underbrush in the national forests. In some national forests, stands that once held fewer than 100 trees harbor more than 1,000, making it easier for fires to jump from treetop to treetop in a fast-spreading canopy fire.
Everyone agrees that clearing out the debris and thinning the undergrowth in the 192 million acres of national forest must be a top priority. The consensus grows shakier on the questions of where and how the agency should go about clearing the stands and why they became so overgrown in the first place.

Smokey, go home

When the Forest Service was founded in 1905, its mission had nothing to do with fighting fires. That came five years later with the Great Fires of 1910, a string of catastrophic blazes in Idaho and Montana that burned 2 million acres and killed more than 100 people, by far the nation's worst fire disaster to that point.
"That was the incident that brought the plight of the Western communities and pioneers to the forefront and got Washington involved," said Mr. Bunnell, who serves as manager of the national fire-use program at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
"At that point, the Forest Service's focus became protecting communities from wildfires," he added.
By the 1950s, advances in firefighting techniques and the success of the agency's Smokey Bear campaign had made forest fires that were not contained virtually a thing of the past. Indeed, the agency became so skilled at fighting and preventing wildfires that it established its brash "10 a.m. policy," which stated that any blaze would be extinguished by 10 a.m. the day after it was discovered.
The agency's unwritten goal was 98 percent compliance with the policy. "Everybody had a scoreboard. We all wanted to meet the 98 percent goal, and most of the time we did," Mr. Bunnell said.
Those priorities changed in the early 1970s with the rise of the ecology movement. As research about natural-resources management seeped into the forestry science field, the Forest Service shifted its focus from snuffing all fires to allowing some blazes in the name of forest renewal.
Even the firefighting program's name changed, from Fire Containment to Fire Management. "The Forest Service decided that fire wasn't necessarily bad and that some fire was good for resource objectives," Mr. Bunnell said.
Allowing natural fires to burn cleaned out needles and debris, enhanced the soils, and eliminated the shade-dependent plants growing under large trees, reducing the risk of larger fires. Prescribed burns gradually joined the agency's fire-management toolbox.
But generations of fire suppression had left a buildup on many forest floors. "We put all the fires out, so now instead of having 10 years of growth, we have 20 to 30 years," Mr. Bunnell said.

How thin is too thin?

The answer was fire-suppression programs intended to thin the overgrown trees and brush, but even that straightforward approach has sparked an outcry. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth, who took over the job about a year ago, wants to launch more thinning projects, using logging, prescribed burns and other methods to put more space between trees and clear out the overgrowth.
The problem with that approach, environmentalists say, is that the agency places too much emphasis on stopping remote fires. Let those fires burn, they say, and focus prevention efforts on the land immediately surrounding homes and buildings in the wildland-urban interface.
"There's 192 million acres in the national forest system. Do we honestly think we can treat every square inch?" said Sean Cosgrove, the Sierra Club's national-forest policy specialist. "We support forest management that protects lives and communities, and that's by creating a defensible space between your home and the forest. Why aren't they doing more of that?"
Forest Service officials say they do let some fires burn, but that's not always the safest strategy, especially now with the undergrowth so thick. Blazes that start 50 miles from town can spread unexpectedly and head for housing developments before crews can get in front of them.
The Rodeo-Chediski fire, for example, covered nearly 20 miles in one day.
"When you have conditions like you did in Colorado and Arizona, these fires can cover huge distances," Mr. Bosworth said. "We don't want to allow fires to burn under those conditions because you can't put anyone in front of them. To allow these fires to burn under these conditions would be catastrophic."
Ignoring brush buildups in the remote regions can also result in fires that burn hotter and longer than normal, which can do long-term damage to foliage, streams and animals. "These aren't healthy fires; they're actually sterilizing the ground so that nothing can grow," Mr. McInnis said.
Environmentalists have another problem with thinning projects, which is that they sometimes turn into de facto timber sales. During the Clinton administration, the environmental movement brought the timber industry to its knees by challenging timber sales, and activists worry that thinning, which enjoys public support, could resurrect it.
Some environmental groups now call themselves "zero-cut advocates," meaning they want no logging in the national forests, despite their historic role in allowing some logging. The Sierra Club has launched a no-commercial-logging campaign to end the practice.
Logging is "the Forest Service's favorite tool to accomplish anything," said Ted Zukoski, staff attorney for the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies in Boulder, Colo. "Where the Forest Service does a big old bad logging project, they're going to meet with resistance."
When it comes to thinning, both the Forest Service and environmental groups agree that larger trees resist flames better, so projects should focus on removing smaller trees. Of course, one man's sickly, insignificant ponderosa pine is another man's ancient old-growth tree.
"'Thinning' itself is a loaded term. What are they going to thin?" Mr. Cosgrove said. "That could mean cutting trees 16 to 18 inches in diameter. We've seen so many Forest Service projects designed for brush reduction and restoration that were nothing but commercial timber sales."
They fear that the trees may go to sawmills, boosting the stagnant timber industry. But even if the timber industry does benefit, there's nothing wrong with that, Mr. Rey says.
"To the extent that this material has any real commercial value, it's in our interest to see the value realized so that the process can be moved along," Mr. Rey said. "If someone can make use of 4-by-4 diameter trees, we'd be happy to get the money and use that as an investment to get these stands cut back."
"While that may be controversial, it's hard to argue that it's less desirable than what we see now on the 6 o'clock news," he said.
If environmentalists disagree with a fire-reduction project, they have a potent weapon in the Forest Service's appeals process. A Forest Service report released last week found that 48 percent of mechanical, or logging, fire-prevention efforts in fiscal years 2001 and 2002 were hit by appeals.
Such challenges can delay for months or even derail time-sensitive tree-thinning and clearing projects, critics say, pushing them into the fire season when it may be too late. Even the threat of appeals can add years to projects as the agency agonizes over making its proposals litigation-proof.
"Let's face it, they're bureaucrats," said Erik Ness, spokesman for the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau. "If the Forest Service were as good at preventing fires as putting them out, we wouldn't have these problems. But they're scared of lawsuits."
An example occurred last month in Colorado with the Hayman Fire, the 100,000-acre blaze that came within 35 miles of Denver. Two years ago, foresters wanted to thin 17,000 acres as part of the Upper South Platte project, but environmental groups delayed the effort by filing 57 pages of appeals.
What they objected to included cutting trees in roadless areas and the size of the trees to be harvested. The timber industry then filed its own appeal. The challenges, which took nearly two years to resolve, prevented any thinning, and the area lost about 1,000 acres to the Hayman Fire.
Hamstrung by appeals and litigation, the Forest Service has watched its image shift among some from the take-charge ranger to the bumbling bureaucrat. "We can't do management activities; they never come to fruition," Mr. Bunnell said. "And because of that, we're having these fires that are beyond our capabilities."

Ending the paralysis

Ask people outside the green movement how to reform the Forest Service, and their first responses will inevitably involve overhauling the appeals system. More than any other factor, dealing with appeals has sunk the agency's ability to manage the federal lands into a bureaucratic quagmire.
"How to bolster our reputation is to always do what we say we're going to do, to be an example of good government," Mr. Bosworth said. "If we can cut down on the procedural stuff and how long it takes to get anything accomplished, I think that'll help our reputation."
He wants to streamline the process, but he'll have to do so over the objections of environmentalists, who worry that abbreviating the appeals system will stifle their input and reduce the agency's public accountability.
"Their argument for the need to streamline regulations is basically a way to cut citizens out of the process and push logging," Mr. Cosgrove said. "They want to gut public-policy laws and say, 'We're the experts; everyone else stay out of it.'
"That's exactly how the Forest Service, with their arrogance and lack of accountability, got into this situation," he said.
Michael Francis, director of the Wilderness Society's national forest program, says that with more people living in the West and visiting the national forests, the agency must realize that more people want a say in how they're managed.
"The Forest Service is in a position where they have people from the old days who want things like they used to be, but they also have these new constituents," Mr. Francis said. "Their image of being the good person has been challenged, and it's taken them a long time to start listening."
But listening goes both ways, Mr. Rey says. "We've got environmentalists blaming the Forest Service for suppressing fires for 100 years," he said. "I don't know what that accomplishes, and I don't know what blaming environmentalists accomplishes.
"I think there are environmental groups that are willing to work with us," he said. "I'm interested in working with the doers, not the suers."

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