- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 21, 2003

Our nation faces a severe forest health crisis. Whether it is raging fires, ravaging insects, or mysterious, disease-carrying agents that threaten to wipe out entire species, not a single region of the country is being spared the devastating economic and environmental consequences of this monumental crisis.

National forest policies have exacerbated, not solved the problems. Federal land managers are unable to actively manage our forests, leaving 190 million acres of federal land at high risk of catastrophic wildfire, insect infestation and disease due to unhealthy forest conditions.

The wildfire seasons of 2000 and 2002 were among the most destructive in the last half-century.

In 2002, forest fires burned nearly 7 million acres at a cost to federal land management agencies of more than $1.6 billion. Since 2000, South Dakota, Oregon, Arizona and Colorado have each experienced the largest wildfires in their respective histories.

The impacts are far-reaching: loss of lives and homes, displacement of communities, loss of tourism dollars, destruction of wildlife habitat and watersheds, enormous pollution into our air, and damage to timber and nontimber resources.

Insect and disease outbreaks are devastating forests around the country, including forestlands in Southern California, which are suffering from the largest bark beetle infestation in the last 50 years. The beetle epidemic, the result of overgrown forests and drought, has killed trees on 400,000 acres. The resulting fire danger prompted the governor to issue a state of emergency declaration and an urgent effort is under way to remove dead trees before any fire hits.

There is ample evidence that well-designed forest management strategies can help. A recent report compiled by Forest Service Research Scientists found that “treatments to reduce fuels can significantly modify fire behavior and severity and reduce environmental damage caused by fire.” Further, the scientists found that treatments to reduce surface fuels will tend to reduce damage to soil, water, and air quality, and that thinning designed to reduce tree crown density will reduce the probability that trees are killed or severely burned.

Forest management experts agree mechanical treatments, with removal of trees and brush, should be an integral part of the solution. After excessive fuels have been removed, land managers can use prescribed burns safely.

On a national scale, the costs of preventative work through treating forests with high risks of wildfire and insect infestations and disease will likely be much less than the enormous cumulative costs of suppression of catastrophic events.

Comprehensive treatments can also pay for themselves with the value of timber removed. It makes little sense to remove wood from the forests and not obtain the direct and indirect economic benefits that wood provides to communities, businesses, and individuals. Not harvesting wood here forces us to rely on imported wood that often is grown without meeting our environmental standards.

Two initiatives that offer promise are the National Fire Plan and the Healthy Forests Initiative.

The National Fire Plan advocates a new approach by emphasizing efforts to avoid fires by reducing the buildup of hazardous vegetation that fuels fires and treating areas infested with insects and disease in a timely manner.

Unless the fuels buildups are reduced, the number of severe wildfires and the costs associated with suppressing them will continue increasing.

As part of the Healthy Forests Initiative, the Forest Service is streamlining its own internal administrative procedures, reducing the number of overlapping federal environmental reviews and simplifying the administrative appeals process.

According to the General Accounting Office’s recent review, appeals held up treatment on nearly 1 million acres in the 2001 and 2002 fiscal years, including 52 percent of the thinning projects proposed near communities.

While the GAO said many of these appeals were resolved in three months, in many parts of the country a three-month delay automatically delays a forest health project by 12 months. Projects are put on hold because the operating season is short and the Forest Service has to wait for the next season to enter the woods.

The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which provides a strategy to restore the health of our forests.

It is critical that Congress pass legislation that allows our federal land managers to move forward expeditiously with on-the-ground projects that restore balance and health to our federal forests, recognizing that “one size does not fit all” for types of treatments and locations.

Aggressive action must be taken to reduce hazardous fuels both within the wildland urban interface, in order to protect communities, as well as across landscapes beyond the interface, to protect trees, wildlife habitat and water quality.

We cannot afford to wait for more insect and disease outbreaks or another costly, disastrous fire season to occur.

Tom Nelson is director of Forest Policy for Sierra Pacific Industries in Redding, Calif. This is adapted from recent testimony by Mr. Nelson to the U.S. Senate on behalf of the American Forest & Paper Association.

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