Saturday, September 16, 2006

Environmental groups are unwittingly destroying forests and killing wildlife with lawsuits. Ironically, they do so while claiming to save them.

Activists again file lawsuits to stop forest management, and the government pays them to do so. They craft settlements that pay them handsomely with taxpayer money so they can live well and file the next lawsuit. No wonder they are inflexible.

The latest example uses the California spotted owl and Pacific fisher in arguments supporting a lawsuit to stop restoration thinning in the Giant Sequoia National Monument. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service haven’t listed either species as threatened or endangered.

These activists claim spotted owls nest in dense forests, so no management should be allowed anywhere the owl might one day live. But, they neglect to mention owls also nest and thrive in managed forests. They ignore the fact owls have to eat, and their prey live mainly in young forests.

Like the owl, Pacific fishers prefer patchy forests, where patches of young, middle-aged, and old forest spread across the landscape like squares on a checkerboard. In fact, science shows fishers prosper in managed forests that mimic this patchiness.

Moreover, recent data from a University of California-Berkeley researcher indicate there probably are at least 896 fishers in the Sequoia National Monument, which, one study finds, is nearly threefold as dense as needed to maintain the population.

Unfortunately, legal action has blocked common-sense thinning to restore forests to their natural diversity and resistance to catastrophic wildfire. Already, many California public forests have grown dangerously overcrowded with 10 to 20 times more trees than is natural. The Giant Sequoia National Monument is near the top of the crowded forest list. It already burned once, and it is certain to burn again.

In 2002, the McNally fire blackened 151,000 acres in and around the Sequoia National Monument, coming within a mile of the Packsaddle Grove of giant sequoias. Without active management, it is only a matter of time before another major wildfire hits, possibly destroying all 38 sequoia groves in the monument.

Rather than protecting forests and wildlife with lawsuits, activists condemn them to destruction. Massive wildfires move so fast that flames can overtake animals like deer, bears and fishers before they escape. Streams boil and fish die. Ash fills burrows and suffocates ground dwellers. Smoke inhalation kills most animals before the flames reach them.

In New Mexico’s Los Alamos Fire, 90 percent of the Mexican spotted owl’s habitat was lost. Between 1999 and 2002, the U.S. Forest Service identified 11 California spotted owl-nesting sites as lost to wildfire. In 2002, the Biscuit Fire destroyed tens of thousands of acres of spotted owl habitat in Southern Oregon and Northern California, including 49 known nesting sites.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cite wildfire as the primary threat to spotted owls. The Pacific fisher is also at risk because of catastrophic wildfire. The forest thinning that activists have blocked is legal and necessary, and approved by the Clinton administration with environmentalist support.

Rep. Devin Nunes, California Republican, recently introduced the Giant Sequoia National Monument Transition Act to allow the approved thinning operations to proceed and protect the sequoia groves, nearby communities and the spotted owl and Pacific fisher from catastrophic wildfire.

Sanity must prevail. We must work together — the public and private sectors and even professional activists. Lawsuits are not the answer to our forests’ problems. Active forest management is the only way to protect lives and property, and conserve the forests and wildlife we cherish.

Thomas Bonnicksen has studied California forests, including the sequoia forest, for more than 30 years. He has published numerous scientific papers on the sequoias and he is the author of “America’s Ancient Forests” (John Wiley, 2000), which includes a section on the sequoia forest. Mr. Bonnicksen is a Texas A&M University professor emeritus of forest science, University of California-Davis visiting professor, and a member of the advisory board of the Forest Foundation.

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