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Fire Fight

With forests burning, U.S. officials are clashing with environmentalists over how best to reduce the risk of catastrophic blazes

Controversy over fire management in national forests was boosted last year with the president’s Healthy Forests Initiative, which followed the half-million-acre Biscuit Fire, in Oregon. The proposal, which is still being hammered into final form by the Forest Service and Congress, would let forest managers make some decisions about thinning and timber sales with less of the environmental impact analysis and documentation now required by law, and it would also limit the internal Forest Service appeals process, which some environmental groups have used to challenge decisions. A recently released audit by the General Accounting Office of Congress reports that 59 percent of the Forest Service’s hazardous fuels reduction projects that were required to have environmental impact statements were appealed during fiscal years 2001 and 2002.

Political debate over the initiative has largely followed party lines, although a new Republican-sponsored Healthy Forests Restoration Act passed the House on May 21, 2003, with the support of 42 Democrats. For their part, Republican supporters say that the bill reflects the current thinking of Western governors and most foresters.

The National Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental action organization, says the initiative is part of a Bush administration plan “to roll back 30 years of environmental progress.” The proposal, the council says in a fundraising flyer, “gives timber companies the right to cut down your last wild forests.” Other environmental groups have called it a plan for “lawless logging” and “corporate giveaways.”

Still, there are sprouts of compromise coming up though the ashes of last summer’s major fires. Local citizens groups across the West are working with the Forest Service and other agencies, focusing on protecting communities near or within national forests. Everyone agrees that the “wildlandurban interface,” where peoples’ homes and other structures abut forest lands, is the place to start. “It’s the first place you have to defend,” says Klein. “But you can’t devise all your strategies around the wildland-urban interface.” That wouldn’t protect watersheds, wildlife, old-growth stands, endangered species habitats, recreation areas and other parts of the fire-prone forest ecosystems out in the backcountry, she says.

The sometimes angry debate over healthy forests legislation rings hollow to Klein and many other foresters in the field. “We’ve almost gotten ourselves into a situation where nothing but a fire will fix it!” she says. “I think most of us working on the ground are disturbed with where we are, and we don’t see an easy way out.” She foresees a time when fire is allowed to play a larger role in forests, but not before communities are protected, forests thinned, the load of dead fuels reduced and political considerations tempered by ecological ones. Meanwhile, there will be more infernos, she says: “I think we have to accept that catastrophic wildfires are going to be part of getting back to a natural regime.”

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