- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 16, 2002

DENVER Severe drought, high winds and careless campers have all fueled the wildfires raging in Colorado, but Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth sees another problem.
There are simply too many trees.
"We have so many more trees out there than under natural conditions," said Mr. Bosworth after spending several days touring the fire sites. "There might have been 40 to 50 ponderosa pine [trees] per acre at one time. Now you've got several hundred per acre."
Like logs on a campfire, the tree-swollen forests, tightly packed with Douglas fir and ponderosa pine, are feeding the out-of-control wildfires as they race across the state from Durango to Denver.
So thick are the trees that the flames are racing from treetop to treetop, a phenomenon known as "crowning." Had the trees been spaced farther apart, said Mr. Bosworth in an interview, the fires would have been forced to travel along the ground, slowing the spread of the flames and giving firefighters more time to contain them.
Mr. Bosworth wants to solve the problem by thinning the forests, meaning he wants to remove trees by cutting them down. First, however, he'll have to get past the nation's powerful environmental movement, whose successful opposition to logging on public lands has helped create the tree-dense forests now fueling the wildfires.
As eight wildfires whipped through Colorado last week, the debate over how to reduce fire danger also reignited.
Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican, last week accused environmental groups of contributing to the state's fire disaster by opposing recent efforts to thin the Pike and San Isabel forests, where the so-called Hayman fire is now burning.
By far the largest of the Colorado wildfires, the Hayman fire has burned 102,000 acres, but another day of cool, mild weather yesterday helped firefighters bring it to 30 percent containment.
Environmental lawsuits delayed the project, which could have reduced the damage being done by the massive wildfire, said Mr. Tancredo.
Last week, he proposed legislation that would make the Pike and San Isabel "charter forests," operating under simplified rules and more local input.
"It's that kind of thing we're dealing with here the idiocy of bureaucrats and environmental extremists, who don't want any kind of management in the forest at all," Mr. Tancredo said. "They'd rather see the whole thing burn, then start over again in 100 years."
Environmentalists scoffed at his accusations. "I would submit that the weather might have had something to do with it," said Ted Zukoski, staff attorney for the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies in Boulder, Colo., whose group opposed the Pike and San Isabel forest project.
But he and other environmentalists agree that they have opposed thinning proposals for several reasons. Many see such projects as loosely disguised attempts to revive the nation's moribund timber industry by feeding it more trees.
Mr. Bosworth said any timber industry left in Colorado was probably beyond reviving.
"If someone thinks we're proposing this for the timber industry well, there's not even an industry for us to propose it for," he said. "There's not even a sawmill left in Colorado."
Environmental groups also argue that the abundance of timber can be blamed on misguided fire-suppression efforts, like the Smokey Bear campaign. Many argue that wildfires should be welcomed, not suppressed, and allowed to burn unhindered except where they threaten lives.
"Decades of fire suppression have resulted in a build-up of flammable brush that can easily catch fire," said the Sierra Club last year in a report on forest fires. "Fire is a natural part of the forest and has an important role to play, just like sunshine and rain."
They advocate controlled burns combined with minimal thinning only in the vicinity of houses.
Fires that break out in the wild should be allowed to burn until they extinguish themselves naturally, according to many groups.
"We prefer minimum [logging], then prescribed fires," Mr. Zukoski said. "Logging, while the Forest Service's favorite tool to accomplish anything, is not always the best way to do it."
He argued that the Forest Service's past thinning efforts have backfired because they removed the larger, sturdier trees, which tend to resist fire better. But Mr. Bosworth said any future thinning would keep those trees and concentrate on clearing the smaller trees and underbrush.
"I'm concerned that environmental groups feel that way, but I also feel it's time to stop arguing about who's right and start doing what's right," Mr. Bosworth said. "We've got to find solutions because screaming at each other isn't working."


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