Saving the Trees May Not Be How to Save the Forest

Last year's devastating Western wildfires set the stage for an unusual battle which pits timber interests against logging opponents and, in some cases, environmentalists against other environmentalists.

At issue is how the federal government will manage America's national forests, which have become increasingly susceptible to huge, uncontrolled burns. Some of the proposed remedies challenge the conventional wisdom of traditional conservationists.

"Oftentimes, the true environmentalists aren't those chained to a tree," said attorney Russell Brooks of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a Sacramento, Calif.-based conservative public-interest law firm. "They're those who sometimes have to cut a tree in order to save the forest."

The PLF is not alone in this view. An increasing number of scientists and environmental groups have embraced the idea of limited logging or "thinning" of forests to replicate the natural process that occurred before the West was settled.

Under truly natural conditions, lightning routinely sparks fires that consume smaller trees and underbrush, while allowing taller old-growth trees to thrive. But ambitious fire-suppression efforts throughout much of the 20th century put an end to the natural cycle and left many forests overgrown with small plants and dying trees.

Today, when forests catch fire, the excessive underbrush acts like a ladder, carrying flames to the crowns of the tallest trees. The fire spreads farther, burns hotter and the area it covers is often a total loss.

In 1996, a prestigious group of scientists urged foresters to thin an accumulation of vegetation and deadwood that posed a fire hazard in Arizona's Coconino National Forest. The scientists were trying to protect the northern goshawk, a rare bird of prey that nested in the area.

Other environmental groups protested, saying that thinning the forest would harm the bird's habitat. But when the inevitable fire came, it consumed old growth trees and took the goshawk habitat with it.

The Sacramento Bee, which investigated the Coconino incident, cites it as an example of how "environmental advocacy has long struggled with scientific fact, despite its very basis in science."

The result has been the polarization of the environmental movement. One camp advocates a "hands off" forest policy, while the other favors a man-made solution to what it regards as a man-made problem.

"The real split in the environmental community is not over whether or not the forests are deserving of some attention and some restoration treatment," said Greg Aplet, a forest ecologist with The Wilderness Society, a Washington, D.C.-based liberal environmental organization. "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."

Many environmentalists are uncomfortable with the suggestion that commercial logging, long considered a foe to the environment, might actually become an ally in restoring health to America's forests. But others warn that maintaining the status quo could prove disastrous.