- The Washington Times - Monday, September 15, 2003

Plant and animal species that require open conditions are disappearing. Streams are drying as thickets of trees use up water. Insects and disease are reaching epidemic proportions. All of this is a prescription for super-hot wildfires.

Since 1990, we have lost 50 million acres of forest to catastrophic wildfire and suffered the destruction of more than 4,800 homes. The fires of 2000 burned 8.4 million acres and destroyed 861 structures. The 2002 fire season resulted in a loss of 6.9 million acres of forest, with 2,381 structures destroyed, including 835 homes. These staggering losses cost taxpayers $2.9 billion in firefighting costs. This does not include the vast sums that will be needed to rehabilitate damaged forests and replace homes.

The 2003 fire season is shaping up to be as bad. Fire danger is very high to extreme in much of the interior West, Northwest and portions of California and the Northern Rockies due to overgrown forests, extended drought and insect-damaged trees. Bark beetles and other insects are killing trees on a scale never before seen. Forests in Arizona, the Northern Rockies, and California have been especially hard-hit by beetles.

I have been working in California’s forests since the late 1960s. Never have I seen anything more dangerous than the overgrown, beetle-ravaged forests of the San Bernardino and San Jacinto Mountains. I am concerned for the safety of people living in communities surrounded by these forests.

About 90 percent of the pines will be dead when the beetles end their rampage. Then, forest communities like Lake Arrowhead and Idyllwild east of Los Angeles will look like any treeless suburb. Whole neighborhoods are already barren of trees where houses once hid in a thick forest. Dead trees are falling on houses, cars and power lines, and they could easily fuel a catastrophic wildfire. That’s why arborists are cutting trees at a frantic pace, but they cannot keep up with the insects.

Unfortunately, it is too late for the San Bernardino and San Jacinto Mountains. The original pine forest soon will be gone. We must start over, and we must do it fast before a wildfire turns what’s left of the forest into brush and communities into rubble.

If we looked back 200 years, about three-fourths of our forests were more open because Indian and lightning fires burned regularly. These were mostly gentle fires that stayed on the ground as they wandered around under the trees. Occasionally they flared up and killed small groups of trees. Such hot spots kept forests diverse by creating openings where young trees and shrubs could grow. These were sunny forests explorers described as open enough to gallop a horse through. Open and patchy forests like this also were immune from monster fires like those that recently scorched Oregon, Arizona, Colorado and California.

Our forests look different today. They are crowded with trees of all sizes and filled with logs and dead trees. You can barely walk through them, let alone ride a horse.

Drought, while not the main problem, exacerbates it. During normal rainfall years, the trees have barely enough moisture to produce the sap needed to keep out the beetles. They cannot resist attack during dry years. A healthy forest can survive a beetle attack during a drought with only moderate mortality. A thick and stressed forest cannot.

We know how we got into this fix: Forest management stalled because environmental activists, government officials and politicians engaged in endless debates on how to look after our forests. Central to the debate is that environmentalists want thick forests. They lobbied for years to convert forests to old growth, which they define as dense, multilayered and filled with dead trees and logs. Meanwhile, trees grew and forests became thicker. Now insects riddle our trees with holes and wildfires turn them into charcoal.

It’s time for some people to admit they were wrong, and for the rest of us to shape the destiny of our forests instead of leaving the decision to mindless insects and the harsh indifference of wildfires.

Thinning our forests and recreating the historical pattern of growth is essential to restoring forest health. That means providing relief from excessive environmental and other regulations that impede the process. We should not doom later generations to the unending cycle of forest destruction from fire and tree infestation that we see today.

Let’s stop the debates, take action now, and do what is necessary to protect and restore our forest heritage.

Thomas M. Bonnicksen, Ph.D. is a professor in the Department of Forest Science at Texas A&M; University, author of “America’s Ancient Forests,” and a board member of the Forest Foundation. This article was excerpted from his congressional testimony.

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