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Experts disagree on forest management

'The devil is in the details'

A helicopter drops water on the Showers fire southwest of Lake Tahoe near Meyers, California.
A helicopter drops water on the Showers fire southwest of Lake Tahoe near Meyers, California.  


By Sean Loughlin
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- As environmentalists denounce President Bush's proposal to ease restrictions on logging in the name of fire prevention, forestry experts allow the idea could have some merit -- but disagree on how to go about it. (Full story)

"The devil is in the details," said Ann Camp, a professor of forestry at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in New Haven, Connecticut. "There is no hero and villain here."

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Environmental groups have been quick to denounce Bush's proposal as a giveaway to the timber industry. Several environmental advocates say the administration's plan will open too much federal land to increased road building and logging, even within unspoiled areas deep within a forest.

"This is a pretty major offensive to rewrite national forest management laws on behalf of the timber industry," said Sean Cosgrove, the national forest policy specialist with the Sierra Club.

What should be cut?

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Other forestry experts, including professors and those with backgrounds in the U.S. Forest Service, say the science of maintaining a healthy forest is far more complicated, a task affected by often competing ecological, recreational and commercial interests.

"There are many different types of logging," said Robert Shaffer, a forestry professor at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia. "The question is, how much is enough?"

Shaffer said the argument by some environmentalists that only underbrush and small trees ought to be thinned is simplistic. He said large trees often become the fuel for "crown fires," those spectacular blazes where huge flames consume treetops, leaping from one to another. Smaller trees act as steppingstones for the flames to reach the larger trees.

"We think of it as a ladder effect, and the fire can quickly move up into the crowns of the trees," Shaffer said. "That's when the wildfires move really fast."

Shaffer stressed "a judicious use of thinning" and said some larger, healthy trees could be included in such harvesting.

"Some groups would say no harvesting at all," he said. "Other groups would carry it too far."

Where to cut?

A firefighter sets some grass on fire to reduce fuel in the Battle Creek fire in South Dakota.
A firefighter sets some grass on fire to reduce fuel in the Battle Creek fire in South Dakota.  

Within the academic and scientific communities, there seems to be little consensus on how much -- or what type -- of harvesting is appropriate to reduce fire hazards.

Jim Lyons, a forestry professor at Yale and the undersecretary for natural resources and the environment under the Clinton administration, said Bush ought to focus on "communities at risk" and not allow logging in roadless areas. The Sierra Club favors that approach, as do many other environmental groups.

"I think, in theory, thinning forests even in remote areas could have some value, but you have to be a pragmatist about this," Lyons said. "The Forest Service's budget is inadequate to march into roadless areas to do thinning. It's simply a misuse of funds. The smart way to go is to work in those areas where there is a clear and definable risk to communities and where there is already access."

Camp, a former research scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, said it makes sense to prioritize and focus first on forested areas close to towns. But, she said, even if one concentrated on such areas, it would be a mistake to think that larger, healthy trees would not be part of the harvesting effort.

"It's very difficult to conduct a harvesting kind of operation if you don't take out some of the larger trees," she said. "It's very, very difficult to have the kind of logging that dramatically reduces the risk of fire unless you are taking out the larger materials."

And she warned that if a thinning operation is sloppy with branches left on the ground, it could increase the risk of fires in the short term.

How long a review process?

Greg Chandler of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management feels for heat in a brush stump at the Squires Peak fire in Oregon.
Greg Chandler of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management feels for heat in a brush stump at the Squires Peak fire in Oregon.  

For some forestry experts, the most controversial aspect of the Bush proposal has nothing to do with the logging itself, but that it will reduce the chance for the public to challenge or appeal some logging decisions. Some of this effect lies in the White House Healthy Forests Initiative's call for "reducing the number of overlapping environmental reviews by combining project analysis and establishing a process for concurrent project clearance by federal agencies."

Lyons said that this is certain to generate more controversy and distract from the goal of reducing the risk of fires. "This is going to make things more difficult," he said.

But Joe Cox, college forest manager with North Carolina State University in Raleigh, said he's glad the president has broached the subject.

He said the risk of fires has increased over the years because there's been too little thinning of brush and other fire fuel within national forests. (U.S. wildfires update)

"I have to applaud President Bush and the administration for at least tackling the issue and starting a dialogue on it," he said.



 
 
 
 







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