- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 26, 2002

Over the last six years, I have served on the Interior Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. We are charged with assessing the needs of the National Park Service (NPS), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), among other agencies. For many years, a bipartisan group of the subcommittee members have carried out field reviews of public lands to better understand the management challenges that the NPS, the BLM and the USFS face in supervising more than one-third of our nation's total land area.
A recurring lesson that we heard from professional foresters and fire management experts at every national forest is that policies such as tree thinning, removing dead and dying timber, selective harvesting and even building roads for maintenance purposes are essential to forest health and reducing forest fires. These practices are proven methods in helping to prevent the ravaging fires that seem to get worse with every drought season. It is a simple fact that, if forests are left untouched, fuel collects on the ground and when lightening strikes, the matchbox explodes with (increasing) record intensity.
In the old days, fewer people lived around deeply forested areas. Fires would burn naturally until the rain extinguished them and vegetation would regenerate even fuller than before. However, today most forests lie along side populated areas. Homes, businesses and human life are literally in the line of fire.
When I first came to Congress, I actually supported former Rep. Joe Kennedy's moratorium on any new roads in our national forests. But after doing my homework, visiting these forests and discussing the situation with experts, I know for certain that we must stick to a balance between management, maintenance, harvesting and preservation.
Through my service on the Interior Subcommittee, I have learned that fire management is nothing less than a science. It must be approached from a strictly professional and empirical viewpoint. Our subcommittee has helped lead the effort for a national fire plan that provides a balanced approach by managing forestlands to protect people and enhance wildlife habitats.
This year, we support a four-prong plan that has been overwhelmingly accepted and applauded by citizens and state governments around the nation. Our approach includes: 1) increasing protection against uncontrolled wildfires; 2) reducing hazardous fuels which can cause catastrophic fires; 3) increasing community support to help local efforts to manage private and state forest lands, including increased funding for protecting forests from insects and diseases which kill tress and increase wildfire danger; and 4) restoring and rehabilitating burned and damaged areas. We also support increasing the role of science in helping guide on-the-ground management and increasing the accountability measures for the agencies. This environmentally sound program is a big change from past practices and is desperately needed to avoid catastrophe in our national forests.
We must give our Forest Service the tools to do its job in reducing the threat of devastating fire. People who oppose all road construction on public land are disillusioned by the premise that these roads are built to "clear cut" the forest for profit. In reality, these roads are needed as a means of tree thinning and to provide emergency routes into a wooded area. Many environmental advocates reject sound forest management practices and ignore the renewable characteristic of our forests in exchange for extreme environmental policies that at times end up doing more harm than good. For centuries, American Indians actually managed the forests themselves with "controlled burns" to remove the timber in order to cultivate crops and provide food for their families. Why do many refuse to learn from the policy that sustained our native culture for generations?
In a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, Interior Secretary Gale Norton noted that more than 190 million acres of federal land are at high risk of catastrophic fire an area twice the size of California. We must take action now. The raging forest fires in America are now in a crisis and must be addressed with sound public policy based on facts and not fiction.

Rep. Zach Wamp, a Tennessee Republican, represents the state's 3rd Congressional District, which includes many rural counties in East Tennessee.

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