In a speech sure to raise the hackles of the timber industry and its congressional supporters, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt plans to announce a “fight-fire-with-fire” policy that places environmental restoration ahead of lumber production.
Babbitt is scheduled to announce a wide range of policies, including controlled burns and expanded efforts at thinning to take away the fuel that has caused runaway destructive fires.
Equating the fire challenge to reintroducing the wolf to control deer and elk populations, Babbitt declares in his prepared text: “To restore health and vigor to our forests, then, the obvious first step is to bring back their own ancient predator: wild-land fire.”
“We must restore fire with the same deliberate and responsible care with which we restored the wolf,” Babbitt says in the text.
“That means keeping unwanted fire out of the wrong places - homes, campgrounds and private property - just as Smokey Bear tells us to. But elsewhere, it now means using prescribed burns and other tools to treat and condition our forests, to help our wild lands absorb the impact of fire and to get them in shape after a century of abuse.”
Babbitt’s speech today at Boise State University officially will unveil plans to set ablaze up to 3 million acres of government-owned forest land per year, beginning in 1998.
The announcement by Babbitt reverses a 90-year-old U.S. Forest Service policy of stamping out all wildfires, regardless of size.
Critics say that policy unintentionally worked contrary to Mother Nature, whose ponderosa pine forests once were part of a stable system in which fire played an integral part. For thousands of years, small fires swept through forests frequently, burning out grasses, brush and small trees but leaving the thick-barked ponderosas alive and well.
These dry, open forests began to change dramatically in the 1900s when the Forest Service adopted a policy of fighting every fire - if possible, extinguishing it by 10 a.m. on the second day.
But the intensity of Western fires has grown in recent years, along with the cost of fighting them. In the mid-1970s, federal agencies spent an average of $100 million annually to put out fires. The bill has climbed to $1 billion.
Washington was hit in 1994 by massive fires in the Tumwater and Icicle Canyons near Leavenworth, and in the Entiat Valley. The Entiat fire was one of the fastest moving in the history of the Washington Cascades.
“For over a decade, wildland fires have burned hotter, bigger and faster, growing more lethal, destructive and expensive to fight,” Babbitt says in his text.
“Why? Because our Western, forested wildlands have grown flabby and sick. A century of snuffing all small and regular fires has clogged our landscapes with sense, dying and exotic fuels. Once ignited, flames now result in an intense, unpredictable inferno, killing life down to the roots, leading to mudslides and floods.”
Babbitt’s speech argues that the Forest Service’s policy of suppressing all fire has created tinderbox conditions that lead to massive infernos.
Leon Neuenschwander, a University of Idaho fire ecologist, is giving the plan his tentative endorsement. “It’s hard to defend a speech you haven’t seen,” he said. If Babbitt proposes “dealing with the root causes by using thinning and prescribed fire to reduce the number of small trees and shrubs - the fuel load - it is absolutely the right thing to do,” Neuenschwander said.
It saves money, assures large trees will remain after wildfires, helps the ecosystem to recover better, means less dirt in the stream, a better forest for wildlife and fewer woodland homes burning, he said.
“Most of the money spent fighting fires is spent on 1-2 percent of the fires, fires which will burn anyway,” Neuenschwander said.
It’s not right for all areas. But the ponderosa pine, Douglas Fir and larch forests around Spokane and Coeur d’Alene are prime for prescribed fire, he said.
Foes will certainly cite air pollution as a reason not to use fire. Considering that logging residue is either burned on site or converted to boiler fuel, “ultimately the amount of stuff going up the pipe isn’t that much different,” Neuenschwander said.
People also may panic at the throught of 3 million acres needing the treatment. Spread that over the 20 states with forests and grasslands needing attention, and its only about 150,000 acres per state.
Still, the Babbitt proposal is not without controversy. Many environmental groups often reject timber thinning as covert logging. Some fear that prescribed fires could escape out of control. And air regulators clamp a tight lid on smoke emissions. While lumber interests don’t object to the burning policy in the abstract, they argue that logging overgrown forests is a more economical way to lower the risk of wildfires.
They are also likely to disapprove of another element in Babbitt’s speech - a profound change in the way logging is done on federal lands. Instead of selling off the tallest, most valuable trees for lumber, Forest Service and BLM land managers will be ordered to concentrate on “thinning” the young saplings that crowd many Western forests and carry fire into the crowns of mature trees.
“We need not sacrifice the integrity of God’s creation at the altar of commercial timber production,” Babbitt plans to tell the Boise audience. “We need to base our (timber) sales not on economic value, but on science.”
Babbitt will also revive the Clinton administration’s 4-year-long clash with Congress over the amount of logging that should be done on federal lands.
While the administration has aimed to reduce timber-cutting to what it considers sustainable levels, Congress has used the budget process to set higher logging quotas.
The administration’s budget, made public last week, calls for the Interior and Agriculture Departments to spend $40 million to $50 million on deliberate burning and other fire-control measures. It also calls for an end to government subsidies for the construction of logging roads in the national forests.
Babbitt also take pains to distinguish his new policy from the “salvage rider” under which Congress let cutting of old growth forests resume under the guise of thinning diseased forests and clearing out trees burned in the 1994 fires.
“Unfortunately, some people only see this issue as a convenient excuse to claim that the only cure for sick trees is to chop them all down - quickly. That we must raze a forest in order to ‘save’ it from the inevitable flames. That we must suspend environmental laws, a la ‘timber rider’ to make way for industrial logging,” according to Babbitt’s text.
“In recent years, congressional bureaucrats have been striving to mandate more top-down, central-planning, multiyear Soviet-style timber production quotas that bear no relation to the sustainable capacity of the forest,” Babbitt says. “That must stop.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo Graphic: Deliberate fires