Don't hold your fire

Today, taking a stand in the trees

The recent Bush administration proposal to suspend environmental laws and eliminate the public's right to appeal Forest Service decisions should be viewed as nothing less than a transparent attempt to increase commercial logging in our national forestlands, which has been this administration's stated intention since Day One.

How shameful too, that President Bush would so callously use a disaster such as the recent wildfires in southwest Oregon to launch the media spin for a plan designed to roll back 20 years of good sense and good environmental legislation, and in part enable the president to fulfill some inappropriate, slimy promises made to timber baron contributors and related special-interest groups during the 2000 campaign.

This administration's attempt to confuse and cloud the issue of "fire suppression," by laughably proposing "timber thinning," can only mean a return to unregulated clear-cutting on our nation's forestlands. Has any administration ever been so brazenly vacant and cynical?

Since this scheme was no doubt in part cobbled together by forestry professionals, I'm guessing it may have occurred to them that old-growth forests actually act as a natural suppressant of fire, even in the driest years. Granted, that would be bad for business, but the awful secret the Bush administration and the timber industry doesn't want to you to know is this: Fire is not bad. Fire is simply one part of nature's long-term, delicate balancing act.

Drought and flames aren't a problem any more than rain and flooding are a problem. The problem is man and his meddling ways and 120 years of forest management (i.e., unrestricted, subsidized logging), screwing up and knocking out of whack a natural process which had been working fine in North American ecosystems for thousands, even millions of years.

We've knocked forest rhythms so far off by removing fire as an element that nature isn't even allowed to compensate with small-scale burns to clear away underbrush and tinder (unless it's a man-made "prescribed burn"), gently changing the way the elements effect the forest floor, and paving the way for pioneering species and new trees. We may as well have removed rain from the equation.

The mature Ponderosa and lodgepole pines in the American West as well as the big, old-growth Douglas firs, hemlocks and spruces here in the Pacific Northwest are designed by nature to survive burns with their thick bark and rich moisture content, while the fires create temperatures for the big trees to be able to rapidly seed. In fact, the longer a tree lives, the more it is able to withstand fire (whew, that's bad for business too!).

The juvenile trees growing in the wake of the ceaseless clear-cuts that have left literal quilt marks on the tapestry of the region's forests are the ones most susceptible to catastrophic fire and drought, and while fire ideally should clean the forest floor an acre here and an acre there, manhandled nature is forced to wait for a drought to reclaim the other half of the natural equation, when everything is bone dry and hasn't been allowed to burn for 100 years. Instead of cleansing the forest, fire now destroys the forest, in a catastrophic fashion nature never intended.

That thinning excess timber, a natural reaction to logging and clear-cutting as the forest slowly tries to weed itself out, is somehow the Holy Grail solution to forest fires is to buy into cheap, message-of-the-day stupidity. Does the president really think Americans are just going to stand idly by and let their treasured national forestlands be threatened and destroyed? Has it not occurred to the greedy minds and special interests that floated this scheme that we all share and live in the same environment, of which forests are an integral, absolute part, no matter which side of the political or ecological fence you may be on?

Tommy Hough writes from Seattle.