Fuels Treatment Is Not Sound Forest Management

Published August 1, 2003

Professional foresters have a tendency to think every forest needs their tender loving care. Even young foresters who want to save old growth often agree many second-growth forests are overstocked and need thinning.

Given complete discretion–and unlimited funding–foresters would gladly turn the national forests into the sort found in Germany, where every stick of wood is removed almost as soon as it hits the ground.

Increasing the Forest Service’s budget in the name of “fuels treatment” will benefit the bureaucracy … but little more. Increasing fuels treatment funding will not improve how the country’s national forests are managed, but rather will encourage national forest managers all across the country to invest precious creativity in figuring out how to describe their pet projects in ways that will qualify them for fuels treatment funds.

Timber Sales

Fuels treatment is not likely to result in increased timber sales, as many Bush administration officials hope.

Liberal environmentalists, of course, will fight timber sale proposals tooth and nail. Moreover, few buyers for national forest timber remain; most have gone out of business or found other, more reliable sources of wood.

The biggest obstacle to more timber sales, however, is Forest Service employees themselves. Employees hired in the past three decades are mostly urbanites of the “Earth Day” generation who became foresters to save the forests, not manage them for sustainable yields.

Modern Forestry Culture

Transferring money and power from the National Forest Service to the Fire Service is not a good thing. National Forest Service officials claim decades of fire suppression have created fire hazards in the forest. One solution, they say, is to let more fires burn. But the Fire Service is so oriented to suppression that it puts out 99 percent of all fires. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, between January 1 and July 9, 2003 more than 1,600 fires have been reported on national forests. The Fire Service has suppressed all but 16 of them.

The real problem with fire is that an urban culture combined with decades of Smokey-the-Bear indoctrination have led to the widespread belief that fire is bad for the forest. In fact, fire can be good for wildlife and plant communities, does little harm to recreation (and can even improve scenic views, as I discovered on a recent visit to Yellowstone), and in most places does little harm to soils or watersheds.

Randal O’Toole is a senior economist with the Thoreau Institute. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The National Interagency Fire Center produces a regular report on fire incidence and resolution. The agency’s July 9 Incident Management Situation Report, cited in this article, is available through PolicyBot. Point your Web browser to http://www.heartland.org, click on the PolicyBot icon, and request document #12526. Updated information is available from the NIFC Web site at http://www.nifc.gov.