F.R. Duplantier reporting Behind The Headlines

Week of:
August 20, 2000
Save Forests by Cutting Down Trees

F.R. Duplantier

by: F.R. Duplantier

The foolish policies of the U.S. Forest Service increase the likelihood of uncontrollable, raging forest fires like the one at Los Alamos.

"National forests throughout the West face a very high fire hazard because forest fires were suppressed for most of the 20th century," reports Robert Nelson of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "Suppressing fire does not eliminate the risk of fire," he explains, "but instead defers it into the future, as wood levels continue to build up. When a forest fire eventually does break out, if not suppressed rapidly, it burns much more intensely, posing a major danger to lives and property and doing much harm to the environment."

In a recent issue of UpDate, a monthly publication of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Nelson emphasizes that "Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck, and other top Clinton Administration officials know all this. However," he notes, "they are caught in a rigid ideological bind that has prevented them from taking effective fire prevention action for the past seven years."

Nelson identifies "three possible outcomes for the excess wood that past fire suppression has left standing on the western forests. It can be burned up in small, prescribed fires," he remarks. "It can be removed mechanically by cutting down and physically carrying out the trees. Or it can be left to burn up in occasional large and unintended conflagrations -- more of the potentially catastrophic forest fires like the one that broke out at Los Alamos."

Nelson criticizes the Clinton Administration for resorting to prescribed fires rather than the safe and effective alternative of timber harvesting. He points out that prescribed burning "faces major constraints. There is always the risk, as seen at Los Alamos, that the fire will get out of control," he affirms. "The weather and moisture conditions also have to be just right, and there is a serious problem of air pollution in many parts of the west. Finally, prescribed burning -- with all the fire precautions necessary -- is expensive." It's too bad that the obvious solution, timber harvesting, is politically incorrect. "If the Clinton Administration and the environmental movement continue to put a rigid ideology above common sense," Nelson warns, "we can expect to see many more fire disasters like Los Alamos in the future."

Thomas Bonnicksen, professor of forest science at Texas A&M;, concurs. In the current issue of Environment & Climate News, a monthly publication of the Heartland Institute, Bonnicksen concludes that "high costs, safety concerns, and air pollution restrictions prevent widespread and frequent burning." Bonnicksen recommends "mechanical thinning and timber harvesting. These are the most effective ways to manage forests," he argues. "They can be used with near-surgical precision, and they have the added advantages of creating jobs in rural communities and producing wood. Unlike prescribed burns by government officials, thinning and harvesting generate revenue."

Bonnicksen also chastises the Clinton Administration for its ideological opposition to timber harvesting. "We have reached a turning point in the history of our forests," he declares. "Unless we begin a large- scale restoration management program now, many of America's native forests will further deteriorate."

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