Today on a charred Oregon hillside, President Bush is expected to announce a plan encouraging selective logging in national forests in an attempt to extinguish the threat of wildfires.
The White House has been tight about the specifics of the plan up until now, but the administration is expected to shave some of the existing environmental review requirements before timber harvests can begin.
By lifting these requirements, made in the National Environmental Policy Act nearly three decades ago, it would allow thinning of underbrush and some commercial grade wood in “high risk” areas. More than 100 million acres of public land is considered to be at risk of catastrophic wildfire and federal agencies have only been able to clear about 3 million acres.
After what may be the worst fire season the West has witnessed in recent years this may be the president’s first solid environmental decision in two years. Despite heated debate from some environmentalists this policy should be welcomed.
In Colorado we have seen the effects of allowing our forests to grow into powder kegs of fuel ready to explode at any time. We only needed to walk outside this week on the Front Range to see the smoke billowing from a blaze near Steamboat Springs that settled over our cities causing people thinking their backyards were on fire to overrun the phone circuits with 911 calls.
The fires make for good sunsets but also they also make for unhealthy air, open fire restrictions that have freaked out campers and tourists from Yosemite to Rocky Mountain National Park, not to mention millions of dollars lost on firefighting efforts and damages during the Hayman and Snaking fires in Colorado, the combined Rodeo-Chedeski fire in Arizona and countless other fires in states like California, Utah, Oregon and South Dakota. We will be more able to protect our forests if there isn’t a buildup of dead trees and unneeded growth choking them.
At the same time we should be sure that Bush himself isn’t just blowing a lot of smoke and using the recent fires as an excuse to give the timber industry a license to slash and burn. A change in policy to help thin the forests should not make it possible for private logging companies to have full access to whatever they want and play a game of “cut it all and run” in our national forests.
Bush was the top recipient of dollars contributed from the timber industry in the 2000 election with nearly $300,000 according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The timing of this announcement is highly advantageous for the president and the congressional Republicans he supports who are up for re-election this November. The Republicans need to frame a new policy to gain more favor from environmentally minded people, without breaking their ties to the timber industry.
There is going to be a delicate balance to maintain. Something needs to be done to solve the burning question of how to prevent wildfires and the best policy we should adopt a sort of “timber temperance.” We should not allow the logging companies to say to us, “we had to destroy our forests to save them,” but we shouldn’t let the environmental groups let them go down in flames either.