Wildfires Debate Engulfs Congress, Western States

By Brian Hansen

WASHINGTON, DC, September 15, 2000 (ENS) - The furious wildfires that continue to ravage forest lands across the western United States sparked a firestorm of finger pointing and faultfinding once again this week in the halls of Congress.

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Start of the Blodgett Fire July 31 in the Bitterroot National Forest, Montana. It was extinguished September 11. (Photo courtesy National Interagency Fire Center)
The House Budget Committee's task force on natural resources and the environment stoked the flames of the smoldering debate on Wednesday, as it convened a hearing to assess how the U.S. Forest Service might better prevent the outbreak of catastrophic wildfires in the future.

House Republicans on the panel were quick to blame this summer's record number of wildfires on what they called the "failed land management policies" favored by the Forest Service and President Bill Clinton.

The President declared in a radio address last Saturday that "extreme weather and lightning strikes" were responsible for sparking many of the tens of thousands of wildfires that have blazed across more than a dozen western states this summer.

"While [Clinton's] claim may be true, it does not tell us why the fires have been so intense and difficult to contain," said Representative George Radanovich, a California Republican who chairs the task force. "Dry weather and lightning have been a presence in the West since time immemorial. The role of government management policy is a key element of the problem."

Radanovich

Representative George Radanovich (Photo courtesy Office of the Congressman)
Radanovich and his Republican colleagues on the panel said they were pleased with the new wildfire management proposal unveiled by the Clinton administration earlier this week, which would augment the wildland fire programs budgets of the Agriculture and Interior Departments by nearly $1.6 billion in fiscal year 2001.

But Radonovich said he remains skeptical that Clinton would move decisively to implement the proposal, in light of the "minimal response" that he said the administration has given to the "years of warnings" that an outbreak of wildfires on par with what has transpired this summer would absolutely happen someday.

To illustrate his point, Radanovich referred to a report drafted by the National Commission on Wildfire Disasters in 1994, which warned of an "extreme fire hazard from the extensive buildup of dry, highly flammable forest fuels across the West."

Radanovich waved the report at Deputy Forest Service chief Randle Phillips, one of several expert witnesses who had been asked to testify at the hearing.

"What happened between 1994 and now?" Radanovich demanded of Phillips. "We had a lot of information, and we had identified the extent of the high risk areas across the country."

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The Crooked Fire in Idah's Clearwater National Forest burned from July 28 to September 5. (Photo courtesy National Interagency Fire Center)
Phillips did his best to fend off Radonovich's attacks on the land management policies that have been favored by the Forest Service and the Clinton administration. These policies have emphasized prescribed burning over selective thinning or widespread commercial clearcutting.

Phillips said that the excess buildup of brush and small trees that fueled this summer's record number of wildfires was a direct result of a longstanding policy of complete and total fire suppression - a policy that predated the Clinton administration by decades.

"During the last century, fires have been aggressively extinguished in the West," Phillips noted.

"While the of aggressive fire suppression has successfully protected homes and forests during the last century, it has also inadvertently prevented fire from naturally cleaning out brush, shrubs, downed material, and small trees that can fuel fires, making them hotter and more difficult to control," he explained.

Radanovich agreed with Phillips as to the cause of the problem, but the California Congressman would not accept Phillips' explanation that the Forest Service had done everything within its powers to prevent the outbreak of this summer's catastrophic wildfires.

Radanovich directed Phillips' attention to a report issued in 1999 by the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress. The GAO report concluded that the Forest Service "has not yet developed a general strategy for selectively reducing fuels" in America's national forests.

More specifically, the GAO report criticized the Forest Service's "over-reliance" on prescribed burning as a prevention technique. The report recommended that the Forest Service increase its use of "mechanical" prevention strategies, such as selective thinning and logging.

Another expert witness who had been asked to provide testimony to the panel, University of Maryland Environmental Policy professor Robert Nelson, echoed Radanovich's point.

Nelson said action is urgently needed to reduce the excess fuel loads on the national forests.

The costs of such a fuels reduction program would be significant, Nelson acknowledged, but he said that facilitating the sale of commercially marketable small diameter trees harvested from the national forests could largely offset the expenses.

"It can be a win-win situation economically and environmentally," Nelson said. "With appropriate government policies, forest health can be improved, fire risk can be reduced, and large supplies of wood can be provided for home building and other purposes."

Nelson's point was immediately challenged by the ranking Democrat on the House panel, Representative David Price of North Carolina.

Price

Representative David Price (Photo courtesy Office of the Congressman)
Price cited a recent report drafted by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), a bipartisan research group which analyzes federal policies for Congress. Price noted that according to the findings of the CRS report, the number of acres burned by forest fires in any particular year is at best only "weakly related" to the volume of timber harvested.

"What's important [in terms of fire prevention] is how much fuel you have, and where it's located," Price said. "I'd really like to get past this logging/no logging debate."

But that is unlikely to happen any time soon, as pro and anti-logging politicians embroiled in the heated wildfire debate are scheduled to take part in several events in the western United States this weekend.

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives Panel on Forests and Forest Health will hold a hearing on the wildfires at the University of Montana in Missoula on Saturday.

The panel's chair, Idaho Republican Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth-Hage, earlier this week blasted the Forest Service's aversion to logging in a letter to the head of the House Budget Committee.

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The Manter fire in California's Sequoia National Forest burned from July 22 to August 14. (Photo courtesy )
"While the Forest Service focuses its resources on acquiring land and shutting it off from the American people, 51 million acres of public land are at high risk for catastrophic fire," Chenoweth-Hage wrote.

"Forests that boasted 70 trees per acre in 1990 are smothered with 700 trees per acre today. This overcrowding increased the threat of catastrophic fire; makes the forests susceptible to disease; and hinders growth of ground vegetation critical to wildlife," she claimed.

Environmental groups in Montana see things differently, and they have vowed to stage a massive rally outside of the House Panel's hearing on Saturday to make their position known. According to Matthew Koehler of the Montana based Native Forest Network, commercial logging is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

"The irony of Saturday's hearing is that Representative Chenoweth-Hage and [Montana Representative Rick] Hill will be using fire hazard hysteria to drum up support for a massive thinning proposal over 40 million acres of national forest lands in the west," said Koehler. "However, the timber industry needs to realize that they can no more 'fireproof' the forests than we can prevent hurricanes, tornadoes or earthquakes."

Koehler's point was echoed back in Washington by Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, a Georgia Democrat, who in a letter this week urged all members of Congress to focus on the "facts" of the western wildfires, rather than the "fiction" articulated by Chenoweth-Hage and other pro-logging policymakers.

"The timber industry and their benefactors in Congress are promoting a massive 'thinning' program under the guise of reducing fire risk that takes advantage of public fears and misconceptions," McKinney wrote. "What they won't tell you is that commercial logging causes and increases the severity of forest fires, and that sound restoration treatments call for a different approach."

The wildfire issue will also be addressed in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Monday, as Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman meet with members of the Western Governor's Association to discuss immediate firefighting needs and long range firefighting goals. That meeting will be closed to the press and the public.