Recent forest fires traced to reduced logging

Published July 1, 2001

A growing number of severe forest fires in recent years has many environmental scientists convinced America should open up its National Forests to a greater annual timber harvest. According to scientists, a certain amount of logging is essential to thin the forest to reach conditions that nature provided before people settled the west.

Under natural conditions, lightning strikes frequently ignited sections of our nation’s forests. These small, frequent fires usually consumed small trees and underbrush, but spared the taller, old-growth trees. In recent years, however, the federal government has pursued an aggressive anti-fire campaign designed to prevent these frequent fires, and to quickly extinguish the fires that do occur.

As a result, America’s forests are unnaturally plush with underbrush and smaller trees that serve as stepladders for fires to ravage the taller, old-growth trees. These old-growth trees would be largely immune to such fires in the forest’s natural condition.

Russel Brooks, attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, pointed out the irony of environmentalists’ efforts to prevent fires actually harming the most valued old-growth trees.

“Oftentimes, the true environmentalists aren’t those chained to a tree. They’re those who sometimes have to cut a tree in order to save the forest.”

The environmentalist community has been polarized by the issue. Is it acceptable to bless a certain degree of logging to spare the old-growth trees?

“The real split in the environmentalist community is not over whether or not the forests are deserving of some attention and some restoration treatment,” stated Greg Aplet, a forest ecologist with the Wilderness Society. “It’s the creation of an incentive to continue logging beyond the level that sustains the health of the forest that people are most concerned about.”

The recent burning of Arizona’s Coconino National Forest brought the issue to the forefront of the environmentalist debate for the first time. In 1996, prior to the burn, a group of scientists recommended that foresters thin an accumulation of undergrowth and deadwood that posed a fire threat to the taller trees in the forest. Environmentalists protested, claiming any thinning of the forest would harm the northern goshawk, a rare bird of prey that inhabited the area. When fire later struck the forest, it consumed not just the undergrowth but also the taller old-growth trees in which the goshawks nested.