President Bush's forest plan is half right.

Making government work better.
Aug. 23 2002 3:12 PM

Firestopper

President Bush's forest plan is half right.

Green groups began slamming President George W. Bush's forestry plan as soon as he announced it Thursday. But Bush's proposal to reduce forest fires by cutting down trees does get it half right.

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Under the plan that has percolated for the summer in the Department of Agriculture (home of the Forest Service) and the Department of Interior (overseer of the Bureau of Land Management), Bush advocates thinning forests to reduce fuel loads, in part by removing underbrush and young trees. Fire specialists call such vegetation "ladder fuels," because it allows a fire to climb off the ground and jump into treetops where it can do real damage. But Bush also wants so-called "merchantable" timber taken out. That is to say, perfectly healthy trees may be chopped down simply because they might burn in the future. Selling these trees to loggers, Bush says, will finance the boring, unprofitable stuff such as pruning pine saplings.

Bush has taken sides in an obscure but important fight over how to handle forests, and it's not clear he has chosen the wrong one. Much of the Bush plan comes from Wally Covington, a Northern Arizona University forestry professor. Covington is an interesting character—intelligent, articulate, with the soothing manner of a good pediatrician, yet harshly critical of past Forest Service practices that have led to the current fire-prone state of forests. He's a little bit of an alarmist but makes a good argument that the defining ecosystem of the West—the ponderosa pine forest, which extends from Mexico to Canada—is in peril due to decades of fire suppression that left it overgrown and vulnerable to fires in a way it never was before Smokey Bear did his thing.

Covington's solution is this: Turn back the clock to about 1880 (chosen as the rough point when grazing changed fire regimes) by estimating how many trees per acre existed then (easy to do by counting tree stumps) then removing all but two or three trees for each pre-1880 stump. Figuring that one or two of those trees will fall victim to bugs or wind, in a decade or three you'll have a forest that looks like it did 120 years ago, when fire frequently burned but did no damage because the widely spaced trees gave the flames little to chew on except grass and pine needles.

It's a good theory, and one that the politically well-connected (well, for a forestry professor) Covington has been able to sell to officials in both the Clinton and Bush administrations.

The trouble with it is that there's not yet much solid evidence it'll work. Covington's prescription has been applied primarily to some test plots near Flagstaff, Ariz., and on a larger scale at a BLM site in northern Arizona. But forestry field experiments tend to be slow—such is the nature of watching a tree grow—and many forestry experts figure it will be five to 10 years before any real evidence comes in. Meanwhile, enviros in Flagstaff who once were Covington's allies now are adamantly opposed to his ideas, claiming credibly that they do real harm to already damaged forests. Plus, it's not cheap to prune a forest. Cost estimates range from $700 to nearly $2,000 per acre, and with perhaps 50 million to 75 million acres of land in need of such efforts, that bill will add up.

Then there's a subtlety that the Bush version of Covington's ideas doesn't seem to grasp. Covington focuses on ponderosa pine forests, which don't regenerate well after destructive wildfire of the type burning this summer. They clearly would benefit from some kind of fireproofing. For them, Covington's proposal might prove a good one (and still cheaper than throwing billions at fires that can't be extinguished).

But millions of acres of Western forests also have in them lodgepole pine, Englemann spruce, Douglas fir, subalpine fir, and other tree species. Many of these trees—lodgepole pine, for instance—are genetically programmed to turn into a pile of ashes every 100 years or so. Lodgepole cones are packed with wax that melts in the heat of a blaze, releasing seeds. Those seeds, meanwhile, need the bare mineral soil a fire exposes in order to germinate. So, it's unclear whether any forest "treatment" would help these forests. Had the 1988 Yellowstone fires burned this summer, Bush would have stood next to Old Faithful and issued the same proclamation he gave in Medford, Ore. And it would have been incredibly wrongheaded. Yellowstone, which is not dominated by ponderosa pine, is thriving in the wake of the fires and is the environmentalists' poster forest for leaving things be.

But even if Bush's proposal were limited to ponderosa pine forests, it would still be troubling for its archaic view of the Western economy. Bush would reopen many Western forests to the heavy logging that was commonplace until the 1980s. The Bush administration, which has rarely seen a natural resource it didn't want to exploit, seems to think logging is good business that will create good jobs whose owners will gratefully vote Republican.

But returning to big logging would be incredibly shortsighted. Across much of the West, prosperity arrived only when the logging stopped. Towns such as Bend, Ore., and Missoula, Mont., barely scratched out an existence as mill and logging towns. But now they're flourishing as well-off retirees and energetic high-tech entrepreneurs swap big cities for a view of mountains and forest and a chance to fly-fish or mountain bike. So, helping the logging industry, an apparent goal of the Bush plan, is like Bush's steel tariffs: It helps a few possible pro-Bush voters, while taking a whack at everyone else. And few forestry scientists believe cutting down healthy, mature trees will do anything to help forests.

Allowing 400,000-acre swaths of forest to burn, as is happening in Oregon, is not acceptable to anyone. Bush's shotgun marriage between a sensible forest-health proposal and the cut-and-pillage tradition of Republican anti-environmentalism, though, may be as likely to start political fires as to extinguish forest fires.

Douglas Gantenbein is the Seattle correspondent for the Economist.