Thursday, May 15, 2003

In 1995, a late-winter storm laid waste to hundreds of thousands of trees in a 35,000-acre area of the Six Rivers National Forest in California. Trees lay strewn across the forest floor, creating conditions particularly ripe for the kind of uncontrollable, unnaturally hot fires that threaten communities and lives.

Officials charged with managing the forests at Six Rivers knew what had to be done. The dead trees had to be removed and the forest floor cleared — all before fire season began.

But they needed permission from Washington, D.C., first, so they submitted various options to their superiors to accomplish this, as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires them to do. Then they waited while courts and others plowed through challenges to every part of their plans. By the time forest officials won approval for what was — for them — a no-brainer, they managed to clear just 1,600 acres before disaster struck.

Before it was over, 125,000 acres had burned, and $70 million had been spent to contain the fires. On top of it all, the U.S. Forest Service had to go back to the drawing board and create still more plans for improving the forest because, of course, the fire had changed the land conditions.

The intent of NEPA — to ensure forests aren’t ripped apart indiscriminately with no concern for environmental fallout — is a good one. But in practice, its requirements have become tools used to prevent plans from being enacted until they’re rendered moot by the onset of the fires or disease that managers sought to avoid. These shackles on sound forest management have allowed America’s forests and rangelands to reach “a crisis of ecological health,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Last year alone, wildfires burned more than 7 million acres of public and private lands — an area larger than Rhode Island and Maryland combined. These fires claimed the lives of 21 firefighters, destroyed thousands of structures and forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate their homes. The two-headed monster forest officials now confront — forests with excessive “loads” of dead trees and other brush and forests deteriorating because of disease and insects — now consumes 190 million acres of public land, an area twice the size of California.

Communities such as Flagstaff, Ariz., and Klamath Falls, Ore., no longer can afford to have sound forest management plans stifled by extremists and their frivolous challenges until fire season arrives and it’s too late to help. That’s the focus of President Bush’s proposed Healthy Forests Initiative, embodied in the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 to be taken up this month in the House.

The initiative would make it easier for forest managers to “thin” forests — fell and remove diseased or dead trees — to perform “prescribed burns,” in which small, controllable fires are set to prevent unwieldy conflagrations, and to otherwise treat forests against insect and disease infestation.

It would do so by streamlining the administrative appeals and court challenges to fire-prevention strategies on up to 20 million acres of forest near residential communities, municipal water supplies, areas with threatened or endangered species and areas where trees are infected with certain insects. Forest Service officials estimate they spend 40 percent of their time and $250 million per year assembling multiple plans for projects when they know what is needed, all to fulfill the requirements of NEPA.

The bill would allow forest managers to develop one plan for public comment rather than allowing the public to weigh in on the universe of options available. And on those 20 million acres most in need of treatment, it would remove the option of doing nothing — a popular one among the hard green left and one required by law now to be among the top options.

It’s time we recognize that times have changed with respect to our forests. Our burgeoning population means more of us live near forests and rangelands than ever before. Leaving the forests alone may sound like the best environmental practice, and it may have been 100 or more years ago when the occasional natural burn could correct overgrowth without threatening communities. Now, circumstances demand we control the elements, and thankfully, we have the technology and know-how to do so.

But how we do so must be based on what’s best for the forests and the people who live around them. And those who have devoted their lives to the study of these ecosystems can best make those decisions — not extremists who insist that to touch a forest is to defile it.

Charli Coon is an energy and environment analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

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