President Offers a Way to Address the Forests Debate

Published November 1, 2002

Few issues have raised such intense emotion as President George W. Bush’s Healthy Forests Initiative.

Private forestry, logging, and land management are venerable traditions in America. Concern for the health of forests among environmentalists inspired the pejorative phrase “tree hugger.” Unless forest management and environmentalism walk hand-in-hand—and just as importantly, appear to walk hand-in-hand—the forestry debate will always be a very heated one.

Compelling evidence supports enlightened human management of our nation’s forests. The President stood atop Squires Peak, an Oregon mountain summit, when announcing his Healthy Forests Initiative. The location could not have been more appropriate.

On one face of Squires Peak, the ashes of an old and failed forest policy lay literally at the President’s feet. In an area where the forest had been allowed to accumulate excessive fuel without human management, the post-fire scene was like a moonscape. On the other face of the mountain, an area benefitted by fuel-thinning and proactive forest management, a healthy stand of Douglas firs reached 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 environmentalists. “We are trying to bring a little common sense to forest policy!”

Squires Peak is not the only real-life laboratory testifying to the benefits of proactive forest management. 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 2002, 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. However, unlike the Fort Apache fire, after the Flagstaff fire raced toward a subdivision of homes, the fire died out in a grove of ponderosa pines that Wheeler had thinned.

Competing Plans

The Healthy Forests Initiative has some potential shortcomings. Implementing the program could prove very expensive. Does handing more and more money to government agencies ever solve real-world problems? Moreover, the federal government has proven itself quite inept at managing the public lands it currently owns. It’s difficult to imagine government agencies could proactively, effectively manage more than a fraction of government-owned forests. Is it worth spending perhaps tens of billions of dollars every year for only a partial solution?

The common-sense solution to this dilemma would be for the government to re-privatize the forests, returning them to private owners who have personal financial stakes in their proper management. That doesn’t seem likely anytime soon.

Both sides of the debate agree forests are far denser today than in centuries past. This is largely due to the twentieth century practice of extinguishing fires as soon as they are spotted. In earlier times, more frequent fires cleared out the dead trees, brush, and other fuels that allow today’s fires to become so catastrophic.

Opponents of the President’s Healthy Forests Initiative argue fires should be allowed to burn as they naturally did prior to the twentieth century. By focusing fire suppression efforts on areas immediately adjacent to human dwellings, the forest will be more “natural” and the wildfire toll on property and human lives will be minimal.

Unfortunately, returning to a “let it burn” policy may not be desirable or feasible. The killer fires of recent decades have raged so intensely they have sterilized the soil, preventing forest recovery for decades to come. Having disturbed the natural order, simply allowing “nature” to take over would result in sterilizing thousands and perhaps millions of acres of forests. The toll on wildlife and air quality, to say nothing of rural communities and national resource industries, would be unacceptable.

The uncertainties inherent in widescale proactive forest management help make the President’s Healthy Forests Initiative very appealing. Administrative and budgetary practicalities restrict the President’s initiative to only a small portion of our nation’s forests, providing an opportunity to see the real-world results of competing forest management plans.

Even if the President’s initiative is implemented, well over half of our national forests will be subject to the status quo of fuel accumulation followed by severe fire. Much like our federalist form of government allows states to serve as laboratories regarding issues of national interest, the Healthy Forests Initiative would allow our nation’s forests to serve as laboratories to assess the real-world pros and cons of proactive forest management. Let’s put the competing plans to the test, and let the best plan win!

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