The leader of a major forestry organization sent a message to the White House urging the president to send federal troops to fight forest fires. Not enough resources were being devoted to save the nation’s forests as a series of severe fires grew in strength, the forester complained.
“That was a telegraph sent in 1910,” said Neil Smith, current leader of the group, the Western Forestry and Conservation Association, which is holding its annual meeting this week in Coeur d’Alene. “Here we are 100 years later. The controversy is still there.”
Foresters at the gathering expressed frustration over what they call a national unwillingness to take meaningful action to fix the West’s ailing forests. Much of the Inland Northwest is at risk for another wildfire of the same power as the 1910 fires, which burned more than 3 million acres and killed 85 people, said Jim Petersen, publisher of a widely read forestry journal, Evergreen Magazine. The 1910 fires burned with such intensity that forest soils were baked into clay. Today, trees still struggle to regenerate at some of the sites.
A “litigation genie” that halts many timber sales and restoration projects on federal lands needs to be pushed back into the bottle, Petersen told an audience of about 150 forestry and timber company officials. And the pace of forest thinning needs to be dramatically increased or the West will face increasingly severe destruction of homes, watersheds and wildlife habitat, he said.
The infrastructure and manpower is ready and waiting, Petersen said. Idaho, Montana and Washington have sawmills crying for more logs, including the small-diameter trees targeted by wildfire risk reduction programs. A market exists for the wood, he added. “There is not enough gold in Fort Knox to pay for the restoration work,” Petersen said. “The work has to pay for itself.”
Petersen is considered by many as an architect of recent federal laws aimed at streamlining federal forest management policy. More reform is needed, he said, especially in the courts. Petersen lashed out at “eco-groupies” and “crackpots, dissidents and malcontents,” who he said have used lawsuits to reduce logging on public lands in the West.
Environmental groups contend the management policies of the U.S. Forest Service – massive clearcuts, thousands of miles of roads punched deep into the forest and a longtime campaign to extinguish all wildfires – has done more damage to forests than any natural event. Petersen and many conference attendees bristle at such talk and argue that people have a duty to protect forests from disease, insects and fire.
“No management is not an option in an advanced society that values its environment,” Petersen said.
John Krebs, a longtime fire management officer on the Palouse Ranger District of Idaho’s Clearwater National Forest, said modern timber harvest practices followed by prescribed burns can make forests healthier, provide logs to mills and reduce the risk of severe wildfires.
“We can put on foresters or firefighters,” said Krebs, who is retired. “We can have roads or we can have dozer lines. We can use it or lose it.”
Last year’s passage of the federal Healthy Forest Restoration Act is beginning to unlock the logjam by cutting bureaucratic red tape, said Bob Schrenk, the Forest Service’s director of forest and rangeland management for Montana, North Idaho and the Dakotas. District rangers are now able to make decisions without so much “analysis paralysis,” he said.
One of the newer tools, stewardship contracts, allows the agency to swap timber for forest restoration work, including removing old roads, thinning scraggly trees or cutting undesirable species. More than 30 projects are under way across the region, including a project near Priest Lake, Idaho, Schrenk said.
Lawsuits, however, continue draining money and time away from work in the forest, Schrenk said. One such case was a recent decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocking the Forest Service’s Iron Honey project near Coeur d’Alene. The court ruled in favor of conservationists, who argued the project would further degrade already damaged streams and rare wildlife habitat. Schrenk said the case set a nearly unreachable standard for forest management and has the potential to “shut down” much of the agency’s work across the West.
Schrenk said last year’s timber harvest target for national forest in North Idaho, Montana and the Dakotas was 225 million board feet, roughly enough wood to build 15,000 homes. The agency’s regional administrators, however, attempted to sell contracts for the harvest of 275 million board feet. “The difference is hung up in litigation,” Schrenk said.