House Resources Chairman Richard Pombo (R.-Calif.) and other conservative experts on the U.S. government’s land management policies said last week that long-standing environmentalist policies contributed to the severity of last month’s disastrous wildfires in Southern California.
The fires, though still burning, have been contained. But Congress continues to negotiate over the Healthy Forests legislation (HR 1904) designed to prevent such severe fires in the future.
Pombo pointed to a GAO study released October 29 that found that 66% of fuel reduction projects planned by the U.S. Forest Service for national forests in California were stalled by administrative appeals-mostly filed by environmental groups-in fiscal years 2001 and 2002.
Forest fuels reduction is aimed at limiting the severity of fires when they inevitably break out by preemptively clearing underbrush and thinning trees. Pombo said that no projects were delayed by appeals in the specific areas that burned last month in Southern California because the Forest Service had scheduled none.
“You can’t point to a specific project that was appealed,” he said, “but because so many of these projects are appealed, the Forest Service has stopped proposing them in areas where there is a lot of resistance.”
“We need to go back in and manage these forests in some way,” he said.
Pombo cited the San Bernardino National Forest as an example of the perverse situation prevailing in national forests. “In the case of the San Bernardino National Forest, Southern California Edison was trying to remove trees that were growing along their power lines,” he said. “Because timber harvesting is no longer allowed there, there is no sawmill in the area, so the company had to pay to have the timber dumped in a landfill. If the Healthy Forests thing works right, timber companies could go into a place like the San Bernardino National Forest and thin the forest. A timber company could make a profit.”
In 1992, the Forest Service sold 8 billion board feet of timber from national forest land. Last year, it sold only 1.2 billion. “Clinton Administration rules changes contributed to this drop, and the environmentalists realized that they could stop any timber sale by filing an appeal,” said Pombo. The Healthy Forests bill will limit, but not eliminate, appeals, he said.
Pombo said that the severity of wildfires on America’s public lands in recent years is not a natural phenomenon. “We began to suppress natural fires a hundred years ago but we were also having timber sales,” he said. “Now we continue the fire suppression but have gotten rid of the sales, so fuel builds up and up.” In fact, said Pombo, “If you look to Native Americans, they used fire to manage their forests,” deliberately starting fires to clear out underbrush before it got too thick just as the Forest Service should do today.
Fuels reduction was not the only factor in California’s wildfire crisis. Pombo spokesman Brian Kennedy pointed to “the lack of fuels reduction, massive disease and infestation [among forest trees], and a well-intentioned lack of forest management.” A severe bark beetle epidemic has left many trees more susceptible to burning. Forest Service spokesman Joe Walsh also noted that the area had “dry, no-rain, extremely arid conditions. The Santa Ana winds.”
California’s Santa Ana winds “blew the fires back up the hills into the conifer forests,” said Robert Nelson, a professor of environmental policy at the University of Maryland and a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “In the 1990s, we didn’t do anything to speak of for fire reduction purposes all around the country,” he said. He also noted that homeowners on land newly developed closer to national forests-such as in Southern California’s exploding housing market-often opposed logging and the controlled burning that the Forest Service uses to control underbrush.
Nelson explained that over the past 15 years, as logging on federal lands has been eliminated, the task of fuel reduction has fallen on the taxpayer-funded Forest Service, “which suffers from bureaucratic inertia, obstacles from environmentalists, and doesn’t have the money to do it anyway. We’re looking at a ten-year period of major government groups predicting disaster [in national forests] because of lack of fire-prevention efforts.”
Nelson cited a 1998 GAO report, which said that in Southern California “high levels of fuels for catastrophic fires” were in the process of “transforming much of the region into a tinderbox.” A 1997 GAO report said, “In summary, the Forest Service’s decision-making process is broken.” In 2000, forest fires burned a record 8.4 million acres and in 2002, another 6.9 million acres burned. So far this year, 3.8 million acres have burned. “We ought to turn over responsibility for the lands to state and local authorities,” said Nelson.
Some California officials tried to blame the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for rejecting a request in April for help in removing bark-beetle-infested trees. But FEMA said at the time that the problem was the Forest Service’s responsibility.
R.J. Smith, director of the Center for Private Conservation, said that because of weather there are only a few months a year, if that, when it is possible to reduce fuels in many areas. “So an appeal by an environmentalist group might delay a project by only 90 or 120 days, but kill fuels reduction in that area for a year,” he said.
“Arizona and New Mexico could be next for big fires,” said a congressional aide familiar with the issue. “There’s not enough money in the Interior appropriations bill to clear all the areas that need clearing. We need timber harvesting.”
Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California is still opposed to resuming timber harvesting in national forests. She offered an amendment to the Healthy Forests bill that would have prevented timber harvesting in “old growth” forests-exactly where timber harvesting is most likely to be profitable. “The real purpose of this bill should be protection of our people-it shouldn’t be to help loggers go deep into the forest and take down old-growth trees,” she said on the Senate floor. Her amendment lost, 61 to 34. But Boxer voted for the final bill anyway when it passed October 30 by 80 to 14-after the Senate had watered down the House bill slightly and attached pork projects. She has voted against versions of such legislation in the past-before this year’s California fires.