Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Senator Larry Craig Yells "Fire" in a Crowded Political Theatre

I just read Senator Craig’s speech on the Senate floor July 24th, 2007. His speech was apparently emailed to every fire management employee of federal land management agencies, all without any substantive comments besides the word, “Interesting.”

I would like to remedy this lack of comment. I spent 10 years working for the US Forest Service. One of the reasons I left the US Forest Service was the constant pressure to lie within the NEPA process to say that timber sales had fewer and less deleterious effects than we, the various specialists working within the agency, knew that they had.

My job for ten years was providing analysis of the impacts of commercial logging on the forest fire environment within timber sale environmental documents. It was also my job to provide plans for cleaning up the copious amounts of vegetative debris or logging "slash" that timber sales create. I have a degree in forestry from Colorado State University, where I majored in fire management. I have fought fires, lit prescribed fires, and managed wildland fires for resource benefit for 30 years, including serving two years on an interagency hotshot firefighting crew. I have also been a US Forest Service District Assistant Fire Management Officer for two different National Forests in California.

Senator Craig stated that “[W]hile Mother Nature was not allowed to burn the forest, man was allowed to come in over the last 100 years and thin and clean.” Timber sales as practiced during this time did not "thin and clean." The largest trees were removed—the ones contributing the least to fire hazard in the forest. When loggers went into the woods, they would fell the large trees, cut the tops and limbs of the trees off (which were left on site), and then haul out the trunks of the trees. Incredible amounts of flammable logging debris were left behind.

Logging companies were supposed to pay for the elimination of this slash, either by mechanical piling and burning or broadcast burning. This was done very begrudgingly, with Forest Service timber managers always trying to minimize the amount of money that the loggers would have to pay to clean up the mess left by logging. Through underfunding and neglecting slash removal, coupled with the fast pace of logging, a huge backlog of timber sales could not be cleaned up. As a result, timber sales have greatly increased the fire hazard on our forests, not decreased them.

For years in the supposed heyday of timber sales, the customary way to “clean up” debris left from the loggers was to send in crews to merely use chainsaws to chop up larger debris so that the forest floor would be covered with slash "only" three feet deep. This was no way to effectively decrease fire hazard! Consequently, timber sales greatly added to the fire danger in the woods.

As an initial attack firefighter, I always tried to find out where the logging areas were located near a wildfire because I knew that fire behavior would intensify when the fire reached these cutover areas full of slash. Logging slash can whip up flames and send burning embers ahead of the main flame front to ignite spotfires, greatly adding to the hazards facing wildland firefighters.

To claim that historical logging has decreased fire hazards is a lie. Senator Craig is ignoring the fact that fire size has historically grown larger during the time of increased logging, not after it. Although commercial logging levels have recently declined in some areas, the legacy of past logging--the removal of large naturally fire-resistant trees, the slash, weeds, and young tree plantations covering old clearcuts--is affecting fire behavior today.

It seems to me that Senator Craig's logic of cutting down the forest in order to make enough money to save it from wildfire is kind of like the attitude that drove the American War in Vietnam: we have to destroy it to save it. I used to call it “My Lai forestry” when I worked for the Forest Service. It was and is patently absurd.

We see smoke in the valleys and mountains every summer because America is a fire-dependent continent. The very trees that Senator Craig champions cutting down depend on fire. I guess Senator Craig advocates converting the entire forest turned into a tree farm, where every square inch is planted by hand, and wildfire is kept away. He desires a return to the great heyday of logging that created huge clearcuts—swaths denuded of all living vegetation and planted with rows of nursery-grown trees. They were plantations, not forests. And as we are seeing today, young timber plantations are hardly "fireproof." On the contrary, they can burn with an unnatural ferocity and cause complete devastation.

Senator Craig asked that foresters, not judges, be allowed to be land managers. The foresters were running our forests like they were tree farms, according to economic principles that have little to do with providing ecological integrity but more to do with corporate profits. The foresters were cutting down public forests in violation of the nation's environmental protection laws, and that is why judges were forced to step in and stop the law-breaking by foresters.

Once the sign welcoming people to the Modoc National Forest was vandalized to read not “Land of many Uses” but “Land of Many Abuses”. That about summed up the “great heyday” of logging in our forests, which should belong to all of us, not just the logging companies that bid to use our natural resources.

I do agree with Senator Craig in one detail—the fires burning in the West today are hotter, more intense and more destructive. But the reason is not that we aren’t logging the forest, but because we have climate change and urban sprawl. People moving into fire-prone wildlands and building their homes out of flammable materials expect a Federal Fire Department to bear all of the costs of fire protection. Meanwhile, the planet's atmosphere is heating up from human-caused fossil fuel burning, and this is causing increased wildfire activity that is overwhelming the capacity of wildland firefighters to protect vulnerable rural homes.

Senator Craig said that 20 years ago we did not have the kinds of fires we have today—I guess he has forgotten about the Yellowstone Fires of 1988 and the West Coast Siege of 1987. Has he really forgotten about the Idaho fires of 1910, too? What about the Peshtigo Fire of the last century? The Peshtigo Fire was the deadliest wildfire in American history--it claimed the lives of over 1,500 people when wildfires were sparked in cutover lands covered by logging slash.

Senator Craig still subscribes to the old psychology that either we control the forces of nature or they will control us and defeat us. This is nonsense! We need to learn to live with wildland fires as an ecological necessity and unavoidable fact of life. We need to build homes with fire resistant materials and good sense, and create fire-compatible communities able to dwell sustainably within fire-permeable landscape and fire-dependent ecosystems.



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