CRS backpedals on link between wildfires, logging

Published November 1, 2000

Congressional researchers who in August found little or no relationship between this summer’s massive wildfires and the decline in timber harvests now say the possibility of a link “cannot be determined from the available data.”

The new Congressional Research Service report was released on September 22 after two Republicans who oversee the service’s budget asked for a review of the August report.

The revised report “is clearly a retraction of the first analysis,” said Doug Crandall, chief of staff for the House Resources Forests and Forest Health subcommittee.

The subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage (R-Idaho)–a frequent critic of Forest Service logging reductions–released the new report.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), said he requested the original report to stem the political rhetoric over who is to blame for the worst wildfire season in the West in 50 years.

“Obviously there’s a lot of spin and reverse spin being applied to the forest fire story during election time, but Senator Wyden hopes . . . both parties will look for common ground,” said Josh Kardon, Wyden’s chief of staff.

Wildfires have burned 6.8 million acres this year, sparking a debate among lawmakers about whether a 77 percent drop in logging in federal forests from 1987 to 1999 caused a buildup of timber that contributed to the severity of the fire season.

The research service, a bipartisan arm of the Library of Congress, examined Forest Service timber harvests and acres burned on agency land from 1980 through 1999.

Data showed that two of the four worst fire years–1987 and 1988–occurred during the peak timber harvests of the last 20 years and that the other two worst fire years, 1994 and 1996, occurred during low timber harvest years.

“The acres burned in any particular year appear to be at most weakly related to the volume of timber harvested,” the analysis in the earlier report said.

Crandall said hundreds of Forest Service employees and scientists complained to him about the report, calling the analysis simplistic and misleading.

Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) and Rep. Charles Taylor (R-North Carolina), who chair the Senate and House appropriations subcommittees that approve the service’s budget, were concerned about the lack of science in the report and asked the service to clarify the initial finding.

The revised report concluded “The extent to which timber harvesting from the national forests in any particular year, or even over several years, affects fire extent and/or severity in a given year cannot be determined from the available data.”

Ross W. Gorte, the research service analyst who wrote the reports, said he already was working on a more expansive follow-up when the lawmakers made their request for the second report. He doesn’t believe the revised report reached a different conclusion than the first one, but presents a “broader context of the situation.”

John Hughes is an Associated Press writer.