New Wildfires Do Little to Spark Congressional Action

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, July 17, 2003 (ENS) - As wildfires burn across 10 Western states and back into national headlines, the debate over what the federal government should do to reduce the threat of wildfires continues to simmer in Washington. Next week the Senate Energy Committee will again discuss a range of proposals, but some Western citizens who live with the constant fear of wildfire are growing tired of Washington's inability to deliver serious resources or a coordinated plan to reduce the threat.

New fires broke Wednesday in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada and Wyoming, and firefighters in some states are facing conditions even worse than last year, when fires scorched some seven million acres. The National Interagency Fire Center reports 32 large fires currently burning in the West.

Colorado forestry and wildlife consultant Barry Rhea says it is critical to remember how Western lands got to their current state. The sustained drought is something beyond land managers' control, Rhea explained, but the poor condition of the national forests is not just nature's fault.

"There are few foresters - public or private - who do not admit that the current conditions in our national forests are the result of poor forest management," said Rhea, whose clients include the U.S. Forest Service.

Rhea says that wildfires were aggressively suppressed throughout the past century, allowing mass accumulation of undergrowth that is a key fuel for wildfires. But there is another key factor - poor timber harvest practices. azfire

Arizona's Kinishba fire, which was started by lightning, has already burned some 18,000 acres and is only 15 percent contained. (Photo courtesy Kinishba Fire Information Center)
"Public land managers armed with the science of the day and motivated by the interests of the timber industry completely altered these naturally functioning forest systems that were doing quite well without our assistance," Rhea explained.

Through much of the last century, Rhea says, clear cut areas were typically replaced with closely spaced and highly flammable timber.

The House bill based on the Bush administration's "Healthy Forests Initiative" that is set for debate in the Senate Energy Committee next week calls for forest thinning on some 20 million acres of federal land. On its face, this is not a bad idea, says Derald Gadios, the fire marshall of Washington state's Kittas County, but the bill does not direct its limited funds to areas near communities, instead it gives private contractors latitude to pick forest thinning projects far from communities.

Removing large fire resistant trees "increases the risk of fire," said Gadios, a former logger.

"You can not fireproof a forest, but you can protect communities from wildfires," Gadios says. "Congress needs to make community protection a priority."

Critics believe the vagueness of the current Bush proposal and the broad authority it grants the federal agencies will encourage logging of valuable timber, not the underbrush most in need of clearing, and contend the bill's revamping of judicial and environmental reviews cut out the public, are unnecessary and possibly illegal.

Although the bill blew through the House, there are signs that the Senate is more reluctant to embrace it.

At a June hearing Idaho Senator Mike Crapo, a Republican and chair of the Senate Forestry Subcommittee, acknowledged the disagreements concluded that "we may write our own legislation."

The scope of the problem is daunting - some 190 million acres of public land are believed to need treatment for drought, insect infestation and potential fire. According to agency figures, the U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department treated some two million acres in 2002.

But only 20 percent of the acres burned in the last 12 years were in national forests, leaving some to believe that the administration's plan has got it all wrong. Some 85 percent of the land near communities most considered at risk is in private hands, but the Healthy Forests bill does not address this part of the wildfire equation.

The Bush plan is not the only wildfire plan under consideration in Congress and rival legislation does hone in on the areas near communities, often referred to as the wildland urban interface. wildfire

Sustained drought, poor management and limited snowpack has much of the nation's land in the West under threat of wildfire. (Photo by Bryan Day courtesy National Interagency Fire Center)
Still, at the very core of the problem is a lack of funding for local communities to carry out relatively simple activities to reduce the threat of fires reaching homes and structures, according to Mary Sexton, commissioner of Montana's Teton County. The Bush administration's fiscal 2003 budget did not increase funds for the wildland fire management over 2002 and with the federal budget facing record deficits, few have much faith that Congress will provide the billions some estimate is needed for widespread fire protection efforts.

Some in Congress are reluctant to toss more money at the problem, noting that recent General Accounting Office (GAO) reports found it difficult to track how much money has been spent to reduce the threat of wildfire. The GAO found that federal agencies lack a coordinated management plan and a standard to measure results and "have failed to identify and prioritize communities at high risk of wildfire."

Colorado businessman Dick Scar shares that reluctance and says he is "not convinced that forest fires can be suppressed by throwing more and more money at them."

But any new money, adds the owner of the Trailhead outdoor company, "should be spent where it would do the most good."

"I am a lifelong Republican and I do not particularly like paying higher taxes, but I really hate to see tax money wasted," he said. "I do not want taxpayers to subsidize the building of more roads for cutting trees deep in the forest."