Signs of New Growth in the Forest Fire Debate? by Dana Joel Gattuso

“If we had done all the thinning we wanted to over the years, we could have kept this fire from exploding, and we could have saved the towns it burned through.”
– Kate Klein, Forest Ranger, Smithsonian, August 2003

Catastrophic wildfires tragically have become as much a part of summer, it seems, as softball games and backyard barbecues. June’s unstoppable “Aspen” fire that raged for a month through 85,000 acres of Arizona’s Coronado National Forest destroyed 322 homes and cost $16 million to extinguish.1 Even more devastating was last year’s Rodeo-Chediski fire in Arizona that spread 460,000 acres, burned down 465 homes, and cost over $43 million.2

And yet the real tragedy is that the spread of these fires could have been prevented. If forest rangers had been allowed to thin overgrown forests and clear away deadwood, the devastation might never have happened. But environmental groups did everything in their means to halt fire prevention methods, issuing an onslaught of challenges, appeals, and lawsuits.

As told in last month’s issue of Smithsonian, forest ranger Kate Klein warned environmentalists of lethal conditions in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests – the site of last summer’s Rodeo-Chediski blaze – where too many trees crowded together and ground-thick deadwood was, in her words, “a disaster waiting to happen.”

She and her crew fought frantically for the thinning projects, but environmental groups appealed them – under current law that allows public entities to challenge agency activities – on grounds that logging would destroy the spotted owl’s habitat. When the appeal was denied a year later, the groups took her to court. For the next two years, the rangers spent their working hours defending their decision. Klein: “We [were] forced to do so much writing that we spent less time in the woods.”

The blaze began just days after they submitted their defense report: “We worked all week [through] Saturday… A fire broke out on Tuesday, a second fire started on Thursday and four or five days later the whole area had burned up. Talk about frustration, hopelessness, anger and depression!”3

Tragically, cases like this are frequent. Millions of acres of forests throughout the West are virtual tinderboxes, in critical need of thinning, logging, and prescribed burning4 to reduce “fuel load.” Yet an endless cycle of appeals and senseless litigation fueled by enviros opposing logging practices have gridlocked necessary fire prevention treatment, endangering lives, homes, wildlife and air quality.

According to a recent General Accounting Office study, environmental groups in 2001 and 2002 appealed more than half – 59 percent – of the Forest Service’s thinning projects open to public appeal. Many were appealed multiple times. Of the appeals – 133 out of 180 – were rejected by the Forest Service after final examination. But the lengthy process cost precious time.5

Appeals and lawsuits, along with regulations under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requiring the Forest Service to perform extensive environmental impact analyses before undertaking fuel reduction projects, all divert time, effort and dollars away from fire prevention. NEPA, for example, requires the Forest Service to consider between six and nine alternatives for each treatment plan proposed, each costing approximately $2 million.6 These costs, along with the expense of appeals and lawsuits, typically consume 30 to 45 percent of the agency’s budget earmarked for fire prevention.7

There are signs of new growth. Legislation modeled after President Bush’s Healthy Forests Initiative and designed to limit knee-jerk challenges passed the House last May and is now in the Senate. Essentially, the bill streamlines the appeals and litigation process and limits the number of alternatives required for analysis under NEPA.

The bill’s opponents claim the legislation emphasizes thinning of old-growth forests in the backcountry and neglects forests surrounding communities where homes are at risk. One wonders how sincere their concerns are since half of the appealable thinning activities near communities were challenged during 2001-2002.8 But more to the point, the claim is untrue; the bill pointedly gives priority to thinning projects that “provide for the protection of communities and watersheds.”9

But the bill also enables thinning of overgrown forests in the remote backcountry, crucial since that is where fires typically start and spread. As advised by Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano (D), who experienced firsthand the devastation from Arizona’s wildfires: “We need to be analyzing and pursuing treatments deeper in the forest based on some of the science… that teaches us what kind of thinning… will help save a whole forest should a fire occur.”10

One hopes Congress will let forest rangers to do their jobs and Westerners will no longer have to endure summers of tragic forest fires.


Dana Joel Gattuso is a senior fellow with The National Center for Public Policy Research. 


1For extensive coverage of the Aspen fire, see articles published in The Arizona Republic on August 11, 12 and September 2, 2003.

2 Paul Trachtman, “Fire Fight,” Smithsonian, August 2003, p. 46.

3 Ibid.

4 Dan Berman, “Forests II,” Greenwire, September 16, 2003.

5 “Forest Service Fuels Reduction,” GAO-03-689R, General Accounting Office, Washington, D.C., May 14, 2003, pp. 3-4.

6 Molly Villamana, “Forests,” Environment & Energy Daily, July 25, 2003.

7 David Rogers, “Timber Rivals Rally in Name of Wildfires,” Wall Street Journal, August 11, 2003.

8 “Forest Service Fuels Reduction,” May 14, 2003, p. 4.

9 Section 103 of the “Healthy Forest Restoration Act” (H.R. 1904), U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, D.C.

10 Transcript of interview with Governor Janet Napolitano, “Horizon,” KAET Radio, Phoenix, Arizona, July 3, 2003.

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