The recent Seattle Times editorial ("New strategies to burn trees and save a forest," Aug. 15) about fire management in federal forests was headed in the right direction, with its strong support of prescribed burning as a tool for restoring balanced fire-dependent ecosystems. But the editorial threw gas on the wildfire when it came to thinning.
For The Times to say that "thinning is not logging" is like claiming that liposuction is not weight loss. Thinning can be done in different places and in different ways, with widely variable results. Sometimes, it can improve wildlife habitat and reduce fire risk. Sometimes, it can worsen both. Always, it is logging.
The most important variable is the type of forest. The Inland Northwest between the Cascades and the Rockies supports a wide variety of forests.
When foresters or ecologists warn us that a century of fire-prevention, livestock grazing and poor forestry practices have disrupted forests such that they are less productive and more vulnerable to fire and insects, they are generally referring to the Ponderosa pine zone that occurs on dry sites, typically at lower elevations.
The native Ponderosa pine forests of the West have indeed taken a beating. The large, valuable trees were cut and smaller ones left behind. The frequent, low-intensity fires, which naturally cleared out young trees and brush without harming the old growth, were prevented. Over time, these once-open stands became dense, crowded and parched with small trees of different species, such as Douglas fir, which compete for water and nutrients.
In this type of forest, careful thinning of the small trees combined with prescribed burning may do a lot of good. So long as care is taken to not harm soils and streams, thinning can improve forest structure and productivity, benefit wildlife habitat and reduce some fire risk.
But there are tens of millions of acres in the West that are not dry Ponderosa pine. Higher-elevation forests are generally wetter and never had those frequent low-intensity fires. Such areas may have burned naturally only once every few centuries.
So 80 years of Smokey the Bear haven't really altered these areas. Thinning them would not only be unnecessary and lacking in resource benefits, but could actually increase fire risk by leaving behind piles of logging debris, or so-called slash, and by increasing the penetration of wind and hot, drying sun, into the stands.
A very important point about the geography of the American West is that most homes and communities are located among the dry forests and grasslands, rather than among the higher, wetter forests.
It is in these dry areas, nearest to human habitations, that our investment in forest restoration must focus. Not only are costs lower because the road infrastructure already exists and topography is often more gentle, but the public return is higher in the form of reduced danger of wildfire to people and property.
Fire scientists call this type of area the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). The Forest Service's National Fire Plan properly calls for prioritizing spending within this zone to reduce risk of fire damage.
Unfortunately, the General Accounting Office found that the agency is instead spending only 25 percent of its funding in the WUI. The rest is being squandered on logging projects in wilder and more natural areas. That means the money Congress gave the Forest Service to reduce fire risk is instead being spent as a subsidy to the timber industry, harming wildlife habitat and streams, and not helping provide a safe buffer between communities and fire-prone forests.
Let's use prescribed burning to reduce dense vegetation and fuel loads, and let's carefully thin (which is logging) in the right places, too.
But these steps alone won't solve the wildfire safety issue. As the Pacific Biodiversity Institute reports, less than 15 percent of the land that has burned this year is national forest. Most of the rest is private and state grassland or forest.
There is significant personal responsibility to be taken here. People who choose to have a home in the woods need to take care to safeguard it from fire. Numerous researchers have identified the most efficient and effective means of protecting property and lives from wildfires is to reduce the vegetation adjacent to homes in an area up to 60 meters (about 200 feet) radius around each structure. Another step is to replace flammable wooden roofs with metal roofs. (For more information on how to fireproof a home check out the Firewise Web site at www.firewise.org.)
Concern about wildfire and human safety brings an opportunity to restore our woods by letting wildfires burn in wild places, and using tree-thinning, prescribed fire and other steps to defend homes and communities in the Wildland Urban Interface.
But let's not get burned by those who would waste our federal dollars and natural heritage by logging our wild areas under the guise of fire safety.
Mitch Friedman is executive director of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, a conservation group based in Bellingham.
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