Logging is starting to look a little better now
Several times each hour, Phoenix radio stations are playing an old song with new words so that “We didn’t Start the Fire” is now the chorus to aroundhouse blast at the conservation community. The lyricist believes that environmentalists, led by the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson and the Sierra Club nationally, are directly responsible for the destruction wrought by the great Rodeo-Chedeski Fires in Arizona.
And try as they might, the leaders of those groups can’t seem to shake the label.
Of course they didn’t start the fires. A seasonal firefighter for the Bureau of Indian Affairs started the Rodeo Fire and a young woman who lost her way and started a bush on fire to signal a TV helicopter started the Chedeski Fire. The two fires burned together and destroyed the economy of the White Mountain Apaches along with almost a half-million acres of thick pine trees, including much of what was thought to be the preferred old-growth habitat for the Mexican Spotted Owl.
The human cost in lives forever changed, homes burned to ashes, fear, job losses, anger and disquiet have not been neatly calculated on the
Interagency Incident Summary Report form 209, electronically sent to Washington, D.C., by senior firefighters at the end of each 12-hour working shift. In fact, much of the long-term impact of these fires is not known and will not be known for many years.
And that’s the crux of the reason why radio station owners in Phoenix and Arizona in general, the editorial board of the Arizona Republic, the editorial board of the Denver Post, the Wall Street Journal and so many others in media and public life are so annoyed. It turns out that the Sierra Club and its allies never mentioned the widespread destruction that could occur as a result of their actions over the past two decades to stop the
Forest Service and other federal agencies from doing anything to change worsening forest conditions in Western forests.
In their defense, they didn’t know. After all, no one has established scientifically what the long-term impacts are from uncharacteristically huge, lethal fires to sensitive and threatened plant and animal species and their dwindling habitats. What Arizonans and Coloradans do know is that a hell of a lot of habitat burned down and a lot of critters with it, not to mention neighborhoods, and there’s more to come.
Until just about one month ago, Web sites for most conservation groups proclaimed that most forest management was bad and fires were good. These groups fought long and protracted battles, very successfully, to stop timber sales aimed at thinning overgrown forests, or thinning and prescribed fires that officials hoped would change the new wilderness of trees growing in numbers never seen before in the West. The groups often went to court, claiming that allowing human management would destroy critical Mexican
Spotted Owl habitat along the Mogollon Rim. Human management, they argued, would be far worse than any fire could ever be. Loggers were the enemy.
It turns out that none of their arguments were based on science. For the record, let me say that we now know the damage done by dams, water diversions, logging, mining and livestock grazing. What no one has bothered to study so far — so sure are we of our philosophical and ideological purity — is whether the impacts of human management are worse than the impacts of these outrageous fires.
Mike Dombeck, the first politically appointed outsider-Chief of the Forest Service in 100 years and a man the Wall Street Journal all but called an environmentalist in uniform, wrote in 2000 that as a result of contemporary fires, “habitats, soils and watersheds are burned beyond their adaptive limits. The severity of these fires poses threats to species persistence and watershed integrity. The damage from these fires is often long-lasting, and may be irretrievable. The extent and severity of these fires could eventually push declining populations beyond recovery, especially in the West.”
We know that if we increase our efforts to log and thin these forests we also increase the risk of harming streams for native fish and old growth habitat for sensitive birds. But what is equally and increasingly clear is that a point has probably been reached where the negative impacts of the fires outweigh the negative impacts of proposed timber management.
Yes, we need more study and more evaluation, but in the meantime, national groups such as the Sierra Club should abandon their anti-logging stance and help in the search for honest answers. The fate of our forests depends on it.
Frank Carroll is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a former Forest Service firefighter and logging-company spokesman who now lives in Minnesota.
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