California Fires Reignite Forest Thinning Debate

"Our forests are detonating like napalm bombs. We need to remove dead and dying bug-killed timber," said Rep. Wally Herger, R-Calif.

Is this Monday-morning quarterbacking spurred by the wildfires now raging in California? Hardly.

Rep. Herger uttered those words in August 1994 as part of his demand that Congress declare a state of emergency in federal forests to permit quick removal of dead trees, fallen branches and other debris that fuel wildfires -- like those that burned 3 million Western acres and killed 14 firefighters that year.

A spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council (search) responded at the time by calling Rep. Herger’s demand “a pretext for accelerated logging in the Sierra Nevada.”

Nine years later, though, Rep. Herger’s demand is looking pretty prescient.

Over 700,000 acres have burned so far this year in California alone, along with the loss of 20 lives and more than 2,600 homes destroyed. Last year, wildfires burned nearly 7 million acres, killed 23 firefighters, destroyed more than 800 homes and cost taxpayers more than $1.5 billion.

So what do the environmentalists have to say?

A spokesperson for the Natural Resources Defense Council called President Bush’s proposed plan to prevent forest fires by thinning excess growth “a Trojan horse” for sneaking through logging (search) projects.

As the Western forests burn -- and people die and homes are destroyed -- environmentalists and their political allies in Congress only seem concerned that some “old growth” trees may be cut in the process of thinning the nation’s tinder traps. Their nonsensical opposition to thinning only makes it easier for wildfires to spread out of control.

That’s positively cuckoo.

"We need to do some active management to prevent unnatural fire" that occurs as a result of dense underbrush and trees built up over decades, U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth says. "If that means cutting a 14-foot [diameter] Sequoia, that's reasonable [to do to] prevent fire."

Amen, brother.

Thinning forests (search) works -- and it’s actually more effective over the long-term than simply fighting forest fires every year.

A 1910 wildfire in Idaho, Montana and Washington burned 3 million acres and spurred the federal government to spend money to aggressively fight forest fires. This fire-fighting policy had an unintended result; forests became overgrown with trees and vegetation that could serve as fuel for more catastrophic fires.

In forests that have only tens of trees per acre, flames tend to stay close to the ground. But in crowded forests with hundreds and thousands of trees per acre, like we have today, the flames can easily move across tree tops. “Flames are 90 feet tall instead of 3 feet tall," according to the University of Idaho forestry expert Dr. Leon Neuenschwander.

A bill currently under consideration in Congress calls for aggressive thinning on up to 20 million acres of federal land at high risk of fire. The bill would reduce bureaucratic reviews and limit appeals -- the tools environmentalists use to block rational forest management -- so that some thinning efforts could be completed within months.

President Bush urged the Senate to pass the legislation -- last May. “For too many years, bureaucratic tangles and bad forest policy have prevented foresters from keeping our woodlands healthy and safe," said the president.

"This year's fire outlook seems less severe, and that's good news," the president added. "Yet the danger persists, and many of our forests are facing a higher-than-normal risk of costly and catastrophic fires."

California is apparently one of the areas of elevated risk referred to by the president.

Putting aside the environmentalists’ general anti-industry -- especially anti-logging -- political agenda and accepting for argument’s sake their alleged concerns about the need to preserve “old growth forests” for “future generations,” the bill before Congress does not permit unrestricted clear-cutting of old growth forests.

Rather, it’s a limited measure intended to prevent the spread of forest fires and it has the collateral benefit of helping the timber industry (search), which has lost 47,000 jobs since 1989. Let’s also not forget that trees -- even old growth -- are not irreplaceable. They will grow back. Forest products giant Weyerhaeuser plants 130 million seedlings every year.

Under Bush’s proposal for thinning overgrowth, we’ll still have venerable “old growth” but also reduced vulnerability to annual, unpreventable and destructive wildfires.

Environmentalist squawking about thinning overgrowth reminds me of the Santa Ana winds (search) -- hot air that only fans wildfire flames.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

Respond to the Writer