Joseph Fox doesn’t have to jump out of lumbering DC-3s every summer, fish his parachute and himself out of treetops and fight wildfires with hand tools.
But the Moscow, Idaho, law student and Ph.D. insect scientist is a smokejumper, part of an elite crew of 400 men and woman who feed spiritual needs and cravings for adrenaline while serving their country.
While wildfire warriors choose to gamble with death, many of them don’t appreciate a new threat raging toward the backcountry: Congress.
The House recently approved a measure that would send environmental laws into hibernation while timber companies log 6 billion board feet of federal logs over the next two years.
Industry-backed lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, say thinning dead and diseased stands will improve forest health and reduce the risks of catastrophic wildfires fueled by dense forests.
Some lawmakers even say such emergency measures, if adopted earlier, ultimately could have saved the 14 firefighters who died last July on Colorado’s Storm King Mountain.
Fox was there shortly after that tragedy to help during the search and rescue. There was no one to save. The mountain was littered with bodies, some cocooned in fire-resistant silver tents. Man has yet to invent a shelter against a 2,000-degree inferno.
“It’s arrogance. They’re trying to use the tragedies of deaths in wild land fires to promote this bill,” says Fox, 41, who says he’s no bungee-jumping thrillseeker, just a steward of the land.
Fighting fire’s fury with chain saws is little more effective than dancing for rain, he says.
Prolonged drought, which has sucked Western forests dry, explains the catastrophic fires that have scarred the Western landscape since the 1980s, he says.
Fox and four other smokejumpers from Idaho, Washington and Oregon will speak out against the logging bill Wednesday at the National Press Club near Capitol Hill.
Although they all have links to the U.S. Forest Service, which runs the smokejumper program, the firefighters say they will speak only for themselves. Their trip is being paid for by the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, a conservation group.
“To say those people would be alive if we had just logged a little more is such a stretch of the imagination, it’s disgraceful,” says 16-year smokejumper Patrick Withen of New Meadows, Idaho.
Scott Anderson, a ski patroller at Bogus Basin near Boise, has “jumped smokes” for 11 years.
He says unregulated logging in national forests will leave more slash, or dead material, on the ground. While lightning-ignited wildfires can’t be prevented, they are inspired by dry slash.
More logging also will mean more clearcuts. Smokejumpers have a policy about jumping into stump fields: They don’t. The result can be broken backs, ankles and legs.
“Clearcut stumps and smokejumpers don’t get along,” the 35-yearold Anderson says.
Barry Gall, 37, of Seattle, is an aquatic scientist for the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest when he’s not jumping into fires.
He wants Congress to back off huge timber mandates which he says will gut the Forest Service’s land stewardship mission while causing more environmental damage.
“This is insulting to me professionally,” Gall says.
U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor, R-N.C., defends his salvage bill, which is being co-sponsored by Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash. Calls to Dicks for the past two weeks have not been returned.
“I am a forester, the only one in Congress,” Taylor says. “When you allow excess buildup of fuels in these forests, you’re asking for hotter fires, more dangerous to fight and more devastating to the environment.”
Such fuels, along with small fir trees crowding pines, should be removed to heal forests, Taylor says.
Had it been done earlier, firefighting resources would not have been stretched thin across the West last summer. The blaze at brushy Storm King Mountain could have been extinguished when the fire was still small, he says.
Taylor has been accused of pandering to the timber industry, which has contributed $71,500 to his campaigns. The lawmaker says he wishes he could draw more timber dollars to help fight an environmental lobby with a “Druid worship” of trees.
Forests are in better shape now than in the last century where they have been managed with logging, he says. “We have to decide whether or not the nation’s resources are going to be managed in a scientific manner or by political correctness or bumper-sticker mentality,” he says.
“The big lie prevails. (Environmental groups) are scaring Aunt Jane into sending them $25 because the last tree’s about to be cut.”
A Senate version of Taylor’s bill, sponsored by Washington Republican Slade Gorton, does not specify a timber target. It is expected to hit the Senate floor today.
Gorton’s bill clears away “conflicting environmental laws and legal challenges” so the federal government can reopen its timber pipeline, says his spokeswoman, Heidi Kelly.
A March 15 editorial in the conservative Washington Times argued firefighting tragedies can be averted through timber management.
An Idaho smokejumper’s widow reacted with anger.
Holly Thrash lost her husband, Jim, on Storm King Mountain.
“Linking this (congressional) initiative to the 1994 firefighters’ deaths is an insult to those who died and a shameless appeal to emotionalism,” she wrote the newspaper.