Wildfires Ignite Forest Management Debate

When the most aggressive U.S. fire season in 50 years occurs during an election year, political sparks are bound to fly.

To date, wildfires have blazed through more than 5 million acres, mostly in western states, and there is no clear end in sight. As the fires rage on, new sparks are feeding an already heated environmental debate over the Clinton administration's management of national forests.

Several western Republicans blame the magnitude of the fires on a lack of forest stewardship.

Fire-ravaged areas of Laird Creek in the Valley Complex of Bitteroot National Forest in southwestern Montana, an area zigzagged with roads.

In Montana, where the fires have forced hundreds of people from their homes, Republican Gov. Mark Racicot and congressman Rick Hill denounced the recent proposal by President Clinton and the U.S. Forest Service to ban road building within more than 40 million acres of national forests.

"Roads are not only crucial in fighting forest fires but also in promoting forest health," said Matt Raymond, chief of staff to Hill.

Clinton's roadless areas initiative is intended to protect remote wilderness areas from new roads that would increase logging and motorized recreation. Critics say the plan ignores the potential for wildfires caused by greater fuel loads.

Racicot believes some forest areas should remain roadless. But he maintains the Clinton administration tried to push through the new roadless policy without studying the potential for forest fires, invasive species and other management issues.

Hill and Racicot point to a 1999 General Accounting Office report, which details the state of national forest health and notes that 39 million acres within national forests are at risk of catastrophic fire.

"These fires were predictable," Racicot said. "This is a wake-up call that we need to balance stewardship on our national forests."

Hill recommends forest thinning and salvage logging to reduce the risk of wildfires.

"The harvest of timber on federal land has been reduced to a quarter of what it once was," said Raymond. "There is a direct correlation between lack of management and the fuel loads that have built up and the situation we are seeing today."

"In one day last week we lost 85 million board feet of timber on 7,000 acres," added Racicot. "That is twice the annual harvest in our state of 800,000 acres."

Fires blazed through heavily managed forests in Montana such as the Thompson Peak/Flat Creek area of Lolo National Forest, pictured here.

Last week, Hill called on the Clinton administration to conduct an emergency salvage operation of the affected timber "to provide a boon to communities that have seen their economic viability damaged by the fires."

"There has to be some sort of silver lining out of this tragedy," Raymond said.

Environmentalists contend western Republicans are using the wildfires as an excuse to advance their political agenda of increased logging and road building on national forests.

"The timber industry and their allies are quickly blaming decreased timber sales in national forests for the wildfires, with the hope of whipping the public into a hysteria to reverse attitudes and trends about national forest protection," said Mathew Koehler of the Native Forest Network.

According to Tom Power, an economist at the University of Montana, only 25 percent of the wildfires in Montana have occurred in roadless areas. Some 96 percent of fire-fighting resources in the state have been used in heavily logged areas with roads and in "urban interface" areas, he said.

The Northern Rockies Coordination Center also reports that most of the largest, fast-moving fires in Montana are in the urban interface zone, along the edge of valleys and not in the wilderness. These areas are characterized by extremely dry conditions, rural subdivisions, noxious weeds and a human-altered environment.

"The Forest Service's budget is directly tied to the cutting down of the national forests," explained Koehler. "The Forest Service has a long history of doing what is best for their bottom line, and not what is best for our national forests, clean air, clean water and wildlife habitat. If we ever hope to have our national forests managed in a responsible way, we need to end the commercial timber sales program."

Koehler also noted that Hill's proposal to salvage affected timber would be harmful to forest ecosystems. "This is not a nuclear zone with everything leveled," he said. "In the future, burnt trees will provide shade for new forests. If you cut them down you open up the forest floor to harsh sunlight."

As a solution to wildfires, a number of environmental groups are supporting the National Forest Protection and Restoration Act, which would end federal logging subsidies and redirect funds into fire-risk reduction programs, including prescribed burns and replanted native vegetation.

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