February 12, 1997 in Nation/World

Ecologist Knows Where To Begin Test Fires UI Scientist Says Local State Parks Perfect For Using Small Fires To Prevent Big Ones

Ken Olsen The Associated Press Contributed To This Staff writer
 

State parks near Spokane and Coeur d’Alene are perfect places to use small fires to prevent more destructive infernos, a University of Idaho scientist says.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt unveiled an aggressive plan Tuesday for using forest fires, range fires and thinning to reduce wildfire hazards. Outlined in a speech at Boise State University, the plan calls for fire and tree thinning on at least 2 million acres of dry federal forest lands and grasslands.

Natural fires were an important part of ecosystem health before the 1900s when the U.S. Forest Service adopted a policy of eradicating them. Now, Western wilderness areas are prone to hotter, more destructive fires after a century of fire suppression that has allowed dense stands of smaller trees to replace relatively open areas.

As a result, Western wildfires are getting bigger and more expensive to deal with, Babbitt said.

“At the root of the recent infernos lies a basic yet overlooked truth: We don’t have a ‘fire problem’ in the West - we have a fuels problem,” Babbitt said. “We can’t stop fire’s hunger anymore than we can stop a lightning strike. But we can understand how it feeds and how to control its appetite. We can fight fire with fire.”

Washington’s Mount Spokane and Riverside state parks and Idaho’s Farragut and Heyburn state parks are perfect places to try this out, said Leon Neuenschwander, a fire ecologist at UI.

These parks encompass ponderosa pine forests, where fire was a frequent visitor before the Inland Northwest was settled. They are small and they are places that don’t require major surgery, Neuenschwander said.

The effort would protect visitors and residents near the parks. “In every high-use recreation area you are very likely to have fire because you have people and power lines and roads,” he said.

“People and power lines have always been major ignition sources.”

Babbitt is calling for $50 million in next year’s budget for thinning and touching off controlled burns.

There is surprising consensus among politicians, scientists, timber industry lobbyists and environmentalists about Babbitt’s assessment that 100 years of Smokey Bear’s put-out-the-fire mantra has caused the problem. There is equally unsurprising controversy about the solution.

“It seems like he went to great extremes to avoid the obvious: the only way you can get (to healthy forests) is to log out those younger trees,” said Joe Hinson of the Intermountain Forest Industry Association.

The speech also was full of pejorative statements about the timber industry, he said. “Don’t spend all of your time castigating logging because it has to be part of the solution,” Hinson said.

Neuenschwander isn’t surprised that the industry is equating the work of a chain saw with the work of fire. While he believes there are several situations where both are necessary, they are not equal.

“Both fire and the chain saw change the structure of the forest” to something less dense, Neuenschwander said. “But fire stimulates nutrient recycling, stimulates the regrowth of the understory, and takes the little trees more easily than the large trees,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, called Babbitt’s speech a step in the right direction. The plan, however, “is too confining for forest managers who are trying to improve forest health on the nation’s public lands,” Craig said.

U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth, also an Idaho Republican, took umbrage with Babbitt’s criticism of salvage logging as a solution. Logging will make money where fire will cost money, Chenoweth argues.

Conservationists, who argue that public lands logging is actually a money loser, are somewhat optimistic. They like Babbitt’s suggestion for appropriating money outside of the timber budget, so fixing the forest isn’t automatically tied to logging.

It may be possible for environmentalists to agree on both logging and the use of fire, said John McCarthy of the Idaho Conservation League, depending on where they are used.

“Where the conservation community can get to the point of approving the thing is if they can prove they aren’t after the big trees,” McCarthy said, “and if they go after the areas with existing roads.”

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Ken Olsen Staff writer The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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