On July 1, the Forest Service will celebrate its 100-year anniversary and will, no doubt, commemorate vast forest growth and successful reforestation efforts throughout many parts of the nation over the past century.
But before the agency uncorks too many bottles of bubbly, officials should be cognizant of the enormous challenges still facing the Forest Service.
While agency personnel busily finalize festivities for the centennial celebration, fire fighters out West busily battle blazes raging in parts of Arizona, Southern California, and Nevada. This marks yet another summer of catastrophic wildfires threatening homes, wildlife and human life.
President Bush’s 2002 Healthy Forests Initiative (search), a blueprint for protecting national forests from catastrophic fire, and the 2003 Healthy Forests Restoration Act (search) were supposed to close a chapter on devastating fires. The new reforms promised to change the old, outdated laws that have restricted logging (search), causing a build up of dense fuel loads over the years and creating lethal fire conditions. They were to limit activist groups’ endless appeals and frivolous lawsuits that have halted critical, time-sensitive thinning projects. They also were to fast-track treatment of forests by eliminating the time-consuming environmental review process for those thinning projects that do not threaten the environment.
But by all accounts, we’re not out of the woods yet. Attempts at reform to shift priority to fire prevention are being challenged by a small yet fanatical group of eco-activist groups who argue thinning projects kill habitat and species.
Today, more acres of forests blanket this nation than in past decades (we grow more than we cut), supporting vast amounts of wildlife habitat and species once threatened by extinction. But the steady increase in forestland over the years also places them at enormous risk for fire. Over the past five years, wildfires have become more severe and widespread, harming human life, homes, air and water quality, and of course, wildlife.
The population of the northern spotted owl (search) in the Northwest, for example, has declined despite a rise in the number of old growth forests and habitat. A new study by scientists at the Forest Service finds that wildfires are among the possible reasons for the endangered owl’s waning numbers. Fires, the report concludes, have been a greater threat than logging projects.
Granted, it will take time to see the effects of the Act’s and Initiative’s new reforms. But in the meantime, activists’ challenges to these measures have brought crucial thinning in high-risk forests to a standstill, threatening to ignite another season of unmanageable fires.
In one case still pending, anti-logging organizations are suing the Bush administration for reforms that would expedite thinning projects by simplifying forest management plans. These plans are lengthy documents that outline how a national forest is to be cared for including procedures for harvesting, habitat, and recreational use. Current requirements are unwieldy, taking seven to 10 years to complete and deterring local forest managers from the job of managing the forests.
The new regulations, which are widely supported by community groups who feel the reforms would provide better fire protection, make it easier for forest managers to revise plans as they receive new information on the forests. It cuts the plans’ preparation time to two to three years, reduces costs, better utilizes new scientific findings on critical habitat, and enables officials to better focus on fire prevention.
But a coalition of enviro groups, extreme in their objective to ban thinning projects, claim the new rules cut corners on protecting forests’ wildlife and discourage public input. The case was filed with the U.S. District Court in San Francisco and means months, perhaps years, of delay in treating high-risk forests.
Washington’s recent reforms are not the silver lining to ending dangerous wildfires. But they do provide some valuable tools to safely manage America’s national forests at greatest risk. The small number of powerful environmental groups, through desperate abuse of the litigation system, are doing a grave disservice to the health of our forests. Their rabid opposition to almost any treatment of any kind threatens all life—wild and human.
Dana Joel Gattuso is a senior fellow with The National Center for Public Policy Research based in Washington, D.C.