Sunday, May 28, 2006

Can't See The Forest For The Trees

I learned an interesting piece of trivia as I was reading an article in The Weekly Standard, written by James Thayer, called Fire On The Mountain. Did you know that during World War II there was more than one Japanese attack on Oregon? News to me. According to Thayer, in September of 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy tried to burn it down, in a manner of speaking:

The Los Angeles Times' banner headline read "REPORT OREGON BOMBING. Jap Aircraft Carrier Believed Sunk." It was September 15, 1942. A seaplane had been spotted near Mt. Emily, Oregon, nine miles north of Brookings. A forest fire had been started near the mountain. Harold Gardner, a forest service lookout, rushed to the area and quickly extinguished the flames.

Then a forest service patrol found a foot-deep crater. Nearby were forty pounds of spongy pellets and metal fragments, some of which were stamped with Japanese ideograms. A metal nosecone was also found.

That same day a Japanese submarine was sited in the Pacific thirty miles off the Oregon coast due west of Mt. Emily. An Army patrol plane bombed the sub, but results of the bombing were unknown.

Less than a year after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had set out to strike a blow against the American mainland, but they failed to cause a massive fire in the dry Oregon forest.

I'm glad they didn't succeed. One of the joys of my life is all the natural beauty that surrounds me here in my home state. It's an interesting bit of historical flotsam, though. Of course, nowadays even most homegrown Oregonians (from a sampling of one--me) haven't heard about the attempt to set our stomping ground on fire, or Oregon's place in the history books (Wikipedia) as the object of "the first aerial bombing of mainland America by a foreign power," from an earlier attack on Fort Stevens in June of the same year. So, why does Thayer bring up this minor element of WWII history? Precisely because it didn't work. The forest failed to burn. In 1942, a single Forest Service lookout managed to extinguish the flame.

Thayer uses this to contrast with today. In the last few years we have had some major fires; the Biscuit fire, which burned in 2002, being one example of many. Once started, "It burned for the next five and a half months, destroying half a million acres of forest." So why the difference? What made one fire so easy to put out, and another turn into a five month nightmare? Thayer says it's an issue of forest health:

A hundred years ago, each acre of a ponderosa pine forest contained about 25 mature trees. A horse-drawn wagon could be driven through the forest without the aid of a road. Ponderosa pine is intolerant of shade, and the trees grow aggressively toward the sun, throwing shadows that discourage growth below. Today that same forest might have 1,000 trees per acre. Usually these are Douglas firs, which prosper in shade, and which grow in thick stands, often so dense that a hiker cannot pass between the trunks.

As a result of this fuel load (Forest Service terminology), forest fires today are entirely unlike those of a century ago. They are hotter, faster, and more destructive. Today, 190 million acres of public forests are at an elevated risk of fires, and twenty-four million acres are at the highest risk of catastrophic fire.

What happened to the forests? Why did they degrade? Two main reasons: the suppression of small fires that destroy weak trees and underbrush and that create fire breaks, and a lack of thinning. Which is to say, logging. The failure to cull the forests has left them little more than kindling.

This all leaves the question: why have our forests been so neglected? By Thayer's reckoning it is due to the enormous amount of regulation brought about by the efforts of an aggressive environmental lobby, and an overwhelming number of expensive lawsuit challenges to Forest Service action. "Only one in ten of the Forest Service's decisions to thin a forest is reversed by a court on appeal." However, that hasn't stopped the suits from coming and causing extensive delays in the work of promoting less fire-susceptible forests.

President Bush's response was to propose new legislation. In August of 2002, "...the president proposed his Healthy Forests Initiative, which Congress soon passed as the Healthy Forest Restoration Act. The President signed it into law on December 3, 2003." It streamlined the red tape, and directed the courts, in various ways, to speed up all the processes involved in moving forward with Forest Service actions, including limiting how long a proposed thinning could be tied up in court. Needless to say, President Bush was accused of what I will call "pandering to big logging." Many environmentalists were not happy with this new direction in forest management. However, Thayer asks the pertinent question:
Does thinning work? In early May 2004, 35 acres of the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge were given a "fuels treatment," as the Department of Interior calls thinning the stands of trees and removing dry brush. On May 11--a week later--lightening started a fire which the wind drove toward Ortonville, Minnesota. But the thinned forest provided the fire fighters with staging areas and fire breaks, and allowed them to quickly suppress the fire. Only 350 acres were burned.
It's anecdotal, I know, but does provide some evidence that this approach might be effective in preventing small fires from becoming major ones. This next bit is anecdotal, too. Last summer my husband and I were hiking on the Oregon coast. We took a trail through what we guessed was a stand of 50-60 year old trees that was so densely packed that, without the old road we were on, we would not have been able to pass through those woods. It was dry and full of brush, and we thought at the time what a fire hazard it was. Moreover, we couldn't see how there was any way that stand of trees could survive to maturity intact. They were simply too tightly grouped to get much bigger, unless they melded into a single solid, a contiguous mass. Either people are going to have to thin them, or God is.

I love the Pacific Northwest and all its wonderful forest land. I am glad that it wasn't burned down in 1942, and I'd like to see it preserved now. I am in complete sympathy with the desire of environmental groups to preserve our beautiful natural environment and the wildlife it shelters. The stumbling block is a matter of method. We will not preserve our forests by neglecting them, or by refusing to see that cutting down the few may save the many. The attempt is ongoing by some in the environmental movement to impede the thinning of at-risk woodlands. Although they are losing some of their support, those most determined to prevent forest thinning are still waging their campaign, and still not seeing the forest for the trees. I'll give James Thayer the last word:

Even reliable friends are deserting the extreme environmentalists on this issue. The liberal San Francisco Chronicle said that "leaving forests alone equates to watching them burn," and lamented that the enviros "still cling to no-action ideologies."

But facts don't mean much to ideologues. In Montana, the first major plan under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act is to remove the fuel load from the Middle East Fork drainage area in the Bitterroot National Forest. The Missoulian reports that the plan calls for logging 6,400 acres out of the area's 26,000 acres. In April, the Missoulian cautioned, "Some people view commercial logging the way others might regard loan-sharking in a cathedral."

Sure enough, earlier this month, Friends of the Bitterroot, the Ecology Center, and the Native Forest Network filed a suit against the Forest Service seeking an injunction.