To safeguard against blazes like the ones that destroyed 7 million acres of western-U.S. forest last year, area governors and the Bush administration have unveiled a plan to suppress and contain wildfires.
The new bill, announced Monday, approves the cutting down of trees and thinning of brush to reduce the danger of spreading fires — practices the Clinton administration often opposed for environmental reasons.
"These fires are the result of not addressing the forest fuel that is accumulating on the forest floor," said Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo.
Many environmentalists are uneasy about relaxing restrictions on logging and thinning. Frequently, they say, threatened species like the Northern Goshawk and the spotted owl thrive in the dead wood and dense thickets of trees.
"If the forest is thinned so extremely that what results is a forest that can maybe sustain fire but also produces a poor habitat for birds, it really hasn’t done anything to sustain the species," said Dr. Gregory Aplet of the Wilderness Society.
Western lawmakers, however, say blaze-prone forests choked with dead wood, dry underbrush and small trees aren’t any safer for animals and birds than thinner forests.
Under conditions where woods are left to grow unattended, ground fires that have burned through grass can become fast-moving, catastrophic blazes that rage out of control and ravage plants and trees.
"The question is no longer if policy-makers will face disastrous fires — but when," said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore.
In fact, mature trees have been saved in past wildfires in areas that were logged and thinned by the Forest Service because the flames had nowhere to go but the ground.
"In my area of eastern Oregon, when these fires go along and then hit an area that has been treated, they drop to the ground and get under control," Walden said.
The Bush administration says it’s sensitive to the issue of leaving nature alone and letting fire rejuvenate the land but believes that sometimes you must cut a tree to save a forest — and protect the communities and industries that depend on their existence. Some governors in the West agree.
"These issues are absolutely important, not only for Montana and all of the United States but especially for the Pacific Northwest," said Republican Montana Gov. Judy Martz.