Mark Rey's Flammable Forest Policy
By Felice Pace, Klamath, CA
April 27, 2004
An article in the April 23rd edition reported on a recent presentation in Portland by Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey, the man who runs the Forest Service for the Bush Administration. The topic was the Administration’s Healthy Forests Initiative. As passed by Congress, the Initiative will boost logging in western public forests in order to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire.
At the end of the article it is reported that Mr. Rey admitted the new policies will “probably not…alleviate threats of wildfire..…in the near term.” The real question, however, is whether the Administration’s Initiative will reduce fire risk at all. In fact, there are good reasons to believe that the increased logging will result in increased risk that catastrophic fire will threaten forest ecosystems and rural communities.
The major reasons this is true were not mentioned in the article. First, the article failed to mention the second of a pair of factors which have created increased fuel loading in western forests. That factor is logging.
Most western public forests are too remote and inaccessible for effective fire suppression. You will realize this yourselves if you consider that virtually all large forest fires are not suppressed by human actions in spite of the government spending billions each year on massive, military-style fire suppression. Instead, it is fall rain that puts large fires out. The Biscuit Fire is just the latest of a string of examples.
In these vast remote forests, therefore, fire suppression has not been a major factor creating increased fire risk. But historical logging has been widespread for half a century. Logging opened the forests to sunlight and this stimulated sprouting and growth of brush and small trees. Within 8 years of when logging occurred, logged forests were choked with highly flammable trees and brush. It is also much hotter and drier in these second growth forests than it was in the mature and Old Growth forests logging replaced.
There is a studied reason why Mark Rey and other apologists for the Administration’s logging first forest policy do not mention logging as a major factor creating today’s fire-prone forests. To admit logging as a cause would suggest that logging may not be the solution. This is, therefore, a topic the Bush Administration wants to sidestep.
Now fast forward to today. Under current economic conditions, i.e. a world timber market, logging is not economical in the West’s remote public forests. Therefore, if it is to occur at all, most public logging must be subsidized. Foreseeing the impact of globalization, the timber industry embarked 20 years ago on a campaign to convince Americans that subsidized logging is necessary to prevent catastrophic wildfire. At the time this began, Mark Rey was a Washington lobbyist working (you guessed it) for the timber industry.
Even with subsidies, however, it is impossible to make a buck on public timber unless most of the timber volume is in larger trees – those over 21 inches in diameter at breast height. These are precisely the logs which Mark Rey’s Forest Service is targeting in the Sierra Nevada of California where it recently “modified” the plan crafted by forest scientists to restore Sierra Forests. That “modification” will give to Sierra Pacific Industries – essentially the only purchaser of federal timber operating in the Sierra – the trees it wants, i.e. those over 21 inches in diameter. Unfortunately, the result will be forests that are even more prone to catastrophic fire impacts, forests which pose a greater risk to nearby communities.
But increased future fire risk will not be the only result of the Bush Administration’s logging initiative. In order to focus staff and other resources on preparing timber sales the Forest Service has had to cancel or curtail other programs. Watershed and fisheries restoration, for example, have been drastically cut. Among major programs impacted are community efforts to remove the smaller trees and brush around forest communities. Because they do not involve commercial timber sales and do not benefit timber corporations, Mark Rey’s Forest Service has cut funding for these projects. Many forest communities will face more risk from fire as a result.
The cynical attitude which allows an Administration to claim that it is reducing fire risk while it is actually increasing the risk to forests and communities mirrors the doublespeak practiced by the Bush Administration in many other areas. In foreign policy, for example, the Administration is “spreading democracy” by illegally invading and conquering a country which just happens to be rich in oil. In these cases and many others, when one strips away the cynical rhetoric, the Bush Administration’s modus operandi is revealed – whatever the corporations want, the corporations get.
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