- The Washington Times - Monday, May 19, 2003

Today, members of the House are expected to vote on the president’s Healthy Forests Initiative. They would be wise to pass it, since stewards of the forests are forced to fight catastrophic blazes but are handicapped in preventing them.

The problem started about a century ago, when, after a series of catastrophic fires ravaged the West, the Forest Service made it official policy to extinguish all fires. While blazes were being put out decade after decade, trees were growing and growing. Forests now have unnaturally high fuel loads, which puts them at risk for not only raging fires, but also insect outbreaks. At the moment, more than 70 million acres of land are thought to be at extreme risk of terrible wildfires — 109,340 square miles — an area about the size of Michigan and Illinois combined.

That danger could be reduced by the passage of the House bill, HR 1904. The measure, cosponsored by Reps. Greg Walden and Scott McInnis, chairman of the Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, would reduce the time spent reviewing the environmental impact of tree-thinning projects and limit the time allotted to court challenges of those projects. It would also expedite research on insect infestations and permit some forest clearing for that purpose.

Quick action can be critical, given the overloaded conditions of national forests. For instance, Colorado’s Hayman fire — which burned 137,000 acres, destroyed 133 homes and polluted Denver’s supply of water with vast amounts of soot and mud — could have been avoided, or at least greatly reduced in scope, had the Forest Service been allowed to thin parts of the at-risk acreage via its South Platte Watershed Protection plan. However, federal forest stewards were held up for years by three lawsuits and a burdensome bureaucratic process.

As a consequence, arson coupled with overloaded fuel conditions created a monster. It wouldn’t take much to create configurations similar to those that consumed more than 7 million acres of wilderness and forestland last year — an arsonist, a careless camper, or even a bolt of lightning.

It’s true that tree-thinned spaces and areas darkened by controlled burns are eye-jarring interruptions from the wonder of the wilderness. Yet, densely wooded forest lands, idyllic though they may be, are time bombs. Extinguishing last year’s record blazes cost taxpayers $1.5 billion and cost 23 firefighters their lives.

At the moment, forest managers are — literally — caught between two fires. Moving forward with trimming and controlled burns may produce unpleasing patches of forest, but the alternative is fiery ruin — smoldering tree trunks, badly burned branches and soot-stained soil across vast swaths of wilderness.

With fire season opening this weekend, forest stewards should be given every possible tool — both to extinguish raging blazes and to prevent them. The House should pass the president’s Healthy Forests Initiative.

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