‘Come stand where I stand!’

Published October 1, 2002

Standing atop an Oregon mountain summit, President George W. Bush straddled the divide between the old and the new.

On one face of Squires Peak, the ashes of an old and failed forest policy lay literally at the President’s feet. On the other face of the mountain, a healthy stand of Douglas fir reached defiantly toward the sky.

Both sides of the mountain had been subjected to the same out-of-control wildfire. “Come stand where I stand!” exclaimed the President, in a challenge to Congress and environmental extremists. “We are trying to bring a little common sense to forest policy!”

The President’s August 22 challenge marked the culmination of a historically savage Oregon wildfire, a long and exhausting 2002 wildfire season, and a quest by Congress and concerned environmentalists to restore balance to America’s national forests. With the unveiling of his Healthy Forests Initiative on the Squires Peak summit, Bush offered Congress and the American people an alternative to the neglect-and-burn federal forest policy of recent years.

Initiative fulfills prior promises

The President’s initiative is designed to attain longstanding federal forestry goals that have fallen victim to environmental litigation and bureaucratic red tape.

Nearly a decade ago, the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan sought to ensure healthy forests while simultaneously assisting the economy by allowing the production of a billion board feet of timber per year. A May 2002 agreement between the federal government and tribal leaders, local officials, and 17 western governors resulted in a 10-Year Fire Plan implementation strategy to reduce the threat of severe fires.

Both the Northwest Forest Plan and the 10-Year Fire Plan were designed to promote healthy forests in significant part by thinning overgrown tree stands. However, regulatory, bureaucratic, and legal obstacles have prevented effective implementation of these programs.

One component of Bush’s new Healthy Forests Initiative focuses on reducing unnecessary regulatory obstacles that hinder active forest management. Currently, federal efforts to actively manage forests are hampered by extensive regulations and policy considerations that have led to “analysis paralysis,” in the words of U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth. According to Bosworth, the current policy environment encourages redundant planning, evaluating, and reevaluating, but little action.

Another component of the Healthy Forests Initiative aims to streamline bureaucratic processes. Last year’s Thirty-Mile Fire, in which four young firefighters needlessly lost their lives after the fire had been initially contained, has served as a wake-up call not only regarding bureaucratic red tape in the fire-response process, but also regarding red tape that allows deadly wildfires to rage out of control in the first place. The President’s program would streamline bureaucratic processes that currently choke off efficient and effective forest management.

Finally, the new proposal calls for Congress to reform laws that allow activist groups to kill timely forest management efforts by launching a seemingly unending stream of administrative challenges and federal lawsuits. For example, the General Accounting Office reports environmental appeals delayed a full 48 percent of the Forest Service’s fire prevention projects in fiscal years 2001 and 2002.

“These numbers are a scathing indictment of the process that governs management of the nation’s forests, and a harsh reminder of just how relentlessly ideological some environmental litigants have become,” said Representative Scott McInnis (R-Colorado).

“We have a problem with the regulatory body there in Washington,” said President Bush from the top of Squires Peak. “There are so many regulations, and so much red tape … there are just too many lawsuits, just endless litigation.

“We want to make sure our citizens have the right to the courthouse,” Bush added. “But there’s a fine balance between people expressing themselves and their opinions and using litigation to keep the United States of America from enacting common-sense forest policy.”

Squires Peak fire avoidable

The President’s message was particularly poignant atop Squires Peak.

In 1996, federal officials identified Squires Peak as a region at high risk of fire, and they began planning to thin crowded trees and dense underbrush on 24,000 acres. However, six years of analysis, documentation, administrative appeals, and lawsuits delayed and reduced the scope of the project to just 430 acres.

When lightning ignited the Squires Peak fire on July 13, 2002, an inferno quickly grew and spread through 2,800 acres of unmanaged forests. In these unthinned areas, the fire killed most trees, sterilized soils, and destroyed the habitat of threatened spotted owls.

However, when the blaze reached the 430 acres addressed by the Squires Peak management program, the fire was starved of its fuel, and the forest was unharmed by the fire. The fire cost $2 million to suppress in the unthinned areas, and $1 million will be needed to rehabilitate the devastated area.

Moreover, Squires Peak was not the first time this year that active forest management proved instrumental in saving plant and animal life from raging wildfires. After an outbreak of wildfires six years ago blackened much of the Arizona landscape, Flagstaff assistant fire chief Jim Wheeler worked with officials in the Coconino National Forest to thin forests on 100,000 acres of land adjacent to Flagstaff.

Earlier this year, the program proved remarkably effective. In June, at the same time and in the same vicinity that the deadly Fort Apache fire blazed out of control, a wildfire broke out near Flagstaff. Unlike the Fort Apache fire, however, the Flagstaff fire raced toward a subdivision of homes and then died out in a grove of ponderosa pines Wheeler had thinned.

“The point is this,” said Wheeler, “either we start thinning the forests ourselves or we are going to lose them to a catastrophic fire.”

The Healthy Forests Initiative “would give us management tools we desperately need to help get our forests and communities out of the crisis they are in,” Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman told the House Resources Committee on September 5. “It recognizes that time is not on our side” and that foresters “must be empowered to act quickly and effectively.”

Congress tackles forest management

The President’s initiative mirrors several pieces of legislation set for Congressional consideration. Republican Representatives McInnis, Dennis Rehberg (Montana), and John Shadegg (Arizona) have each introduced bills that would eliminate obstacles to effective forest management. Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho) was planning to introduce similar legislation in the Senate.

The White House is counting on a consensus of Republicans and western Democrats to steer his initiative or similar legislation through Congress. West of the Rockies—the region most significantly affected by this year’s record wildfires—Republicans and Democrats alike are backing the President’s initiative. In addition to near-unanimity among Republican lawmakers, prominent western Democrats, including California Senator Dianne Feinstein and Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, have supported the President’s proposal.

“Thinning is probably the greatest source of apprehension among environmentalists, but I strongly believe that we can find an accommodation and do this, and I hope to meet with both the National Forest Service and leaders of major environmental organizations to discuss this further,” said Feinstein. “These projects are too often delayed by lengthy environmental and bureaucratic review, creating even more hazardous overgrowth that, in the end, could pose more danger to the environment than any thinning project ever could.”

“If there ever was an issue on which we should all be on the same page, this is it, because the increased catastrophic fire risk should be of serious concern to all Americans, particularly in the Western United States,” she added.

Wyden also campaigned for active forest management. “It is absolutely critical, on a bipartisan basis, [that] we move more aggressively with a fuels reduction program to end this devastation we are seeing in the West,” he said.

“With President Bush leading the charge, and Democrats joining the reform bandwagon in droves, the political worm has turned against those defending the disastrous status quo on our national forests,” observed McInnis.

Nevertheless, passage of the President’s plan is far from guaranteed. Democrats east of the Rockies have largely opposed the type of active forest management Westerners are requesting. Their approach would continue the practice of allowing unprecedented fuel buildup, to be followed by major fires. The only active management would be federal programs to help people make their homes more fire resistant.

Any significant new forest plan would require 60 votes to pass through the Senate. Much like last year’s bill to allow oil recovery in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the President’s Healthy Forests Initiative could fail despite majority support in both the House and the Senate.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.