- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Mother Nature is finally doing what Congress was unable to do this session, putting out wildfires that have burned in all 50 states, destroying nearly 7 million acres of national forests.

The snowfalls that now are mercifully extinguishing the fires contrast starkly with the icy chill President Bush's Healthy Forest Initiative received on Capitol Hill, where it has been stalled for months by partisan bickering.

And, while Congress squabbled, the forests burned.

When the issue is forests, the debate in Washington has become all-too-predictable. Each side trots out the same old arguments and the same old advocates, and the result too often is gridlock. But, as America's 10 million family forest owners know well if you want to keep your forests healthy and growing, doing nothing in the face of massive threats just isn't an option.

This year seemed to mark a turning point. Mr. Bush introduced a sensible, scientifically sound plan for preventing the devastation caused by unchecked wildfires on federal forests. Then, for a hopeful moment, both sides reached across party lines to find a compromise.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, took the first risk by inserting language into a spending bill to exempt federal rules and allow a timber sale to proceed in his home state. He understood that years of suppressing wildfires had set the stage for catastrophic fires in the future.

Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, then worked together to pass similar reforms in the Senate, while Rep. Scott McInnis, Colorado Republican, and Rep. George Miller, California Democrat, are still trying to reach a solution in the House.

Taking the stand that careful harvesting can actually be good for forest management was an important step for Democrats this year. Mr. Miller and Rep. Peter DeFazio, Oregon Democrat, made it clear to green groups during House hearings that they believe it is time to actively manage forests, and they have negotiated in good faith with Republicans to find a solution.

But as time runs out, it becomes clear this is a battle that must be carried over into the 108th session of Congress.

The summer of 2002 was the second-largest fire season in the last 50 years. More than 67,000 wildfires scorched the earth. But few of those fires devastated family owned forests. Why? Because, like my wife Rose Lane and me, most family forest owners know the best stewards must be part of the environmental equation. We actively manage our forests by thinning, removing fuel buildup and performing carefully prescribed burns every few years so we can prevent the kind of disastrous wildfires we've seen this year on federal forests.

We're very proud of the stewardship at our family forest, Charlane Plantation. We do a lot of the work ourselves, and over the years we've made it a much better place, with bountiful wildlife and healthy watersheds, and we're working hard to make it even better. I believe our national forests would be far healthier if they were managed like our family-owned forest.

The great pioneers that established the national forest system, Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot and others, knew long ago how important good stewardship is, and that it just doesn't happen you have to work at it. Our forests belong to all Americans, and while trees cannot vote or send in campaign donations, they deserve protection through intelligent and active management, not by fencing them off to human activity and watching them burn.

Sadly, this year's congressional session answered the age-old question: Millions of trees fell in the forests, and Congress did not hear the sound.

Chuck Leavell is an award-winning tree farmer and world-renowned pianist currently touring with the Rolling Stones. He is author of a book on American forests called "Forever Green."

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