Chainsaw George

George W. Bush, fresh off a brush-clearing operation at his Crawford ranch, vowed to fight forest fires by taking a chainsaw to the nation’s forests and the environmental laws that protect them.
Bush wants to allow the timber industry to log off more than 2.5 million acres of federal forest over the next ten years. “The Healthy Forests Initiative” is a craven bit of political opportunism, rivaled, perhaps, only by his call to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling to help heal the nation after September 11.
Bush is exploiting a primal fear of fire. But the forests of North America were born of fires. Fire suppression became an obsession only after the timber giants claimed the continent’s forests. Loath to see their holdings go up in flames, they arm-twisted Congress into pouring millions of dollars into Forest Service fire-fighting programs. (For an excellent history of the political economy of forest fires, see Stephen Pyne’s 1997 Fire in America.) These programs have acted as federally funded fire insurance for the big timber companies, an ongoing corporate bailout of tens of billions of dollars.
Where did the money go? Largely to a fire-fighting infrastructure that rivals the National Guard: helicopters, tankers, satellites, airplanes, and people who are thrust, often carelessly, onto the firelines. (Read Norman Maclean’s last book, Young Men and Fire.)
Even now, after forest ecologists have proved that most forests not only tolerate but need fire, the Forest Service tries to suppress 99.7% of all wildfires. The regular, low-intensity fires that have swept through the forests for millennia have been replaced by catastrophic blazes.
The last thing a burned-over forest needs is assault by chainsaws to haul out its last living trees. The proof can be found at Mt. St. Helens and Yellowstone Park: Unlogged burned forests recover quickly, feeding off the nutrients left behind. Logged burned forests persist as biological deserts, prone to mudslides, difficult to revegetate, and abandoned by salmon and deep forest birds such as spotted owl, goshawk, and marbled murrelet.
In Oregon more than 45,000 acres of Siskiyou Mountains ancient forest was torched by Forest Service crews for a backfire to “save” a town that wasn’t threatened. By one estimate, more than a third of the land burned this summer was ignited by the Forest Service as backfires. The timber industry gets to log nearly all those acres for next to nothing.
A century of unrestrained logging has vastly increased the intensity and frequency of wildfires, particularly in the West. Bush promises more of the same, accelerated and uninhibited. With global warming, persistent droughts, and invasions by alien insects and diseases, the future for American forests looks very bleak indeed.
Predictably, the Bush scheme was met with protest from the big environmental groups. But they only have themselves to blame. They helped lay the political groundwork for the Bush plan long ago.
First came a deal to jettison a federal injunction against logging in Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest, to appease Senator Max Baucus, friend of Robert Redford and a ranking Democrat. More than 14,000 acres of forest inside formerly protected roadless areas are now being clearcut. Then in September, a similar deal brokered by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle with the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society allowed unconstrained logging to begin in the Black Hills, sacred to the Sioux.
There’s no sign the big greens have learned their lesson.
The Oregon Natural Resources Council and Sierra Club’s “environmentalist new vision” calls for thinning (i.e., logging) operations near homes in the forest/suburb interface. In fact, there’s no evidence that thinning will reduce fires in these situations. Forest Service fire researcher Jack Cohen has found that homes and other structures will be safe from fire if roofs and landscaping within 150 feet are fireproofed, says Randal O’Toole, a forest economist at the Thoreau Institute in Bandon, Oregon. “Firebreaks along federal land boundaries, not treatments of [federal] lands within those boundaries, will protect private property.”
Any environmental outfit with a conscience would call for thinning of subdivisions, not forests. Don’t hold your breath. Too many big-time contributors to environmental groups own houses inside forests in places like Vail; Black Butte Ranch, Oregon; and Flagstaff, Arizona.
When Bush arrived in Portland on August 22 to make official his handout to big timber, he was greeted by nearly a thousand protesters, Earth First!ers, and anti-war activists. The demonstrators were beaten, gassed, and shot at with plastic bullets. Riot police even pepper-sprayed children.
This is a portent of things to come. When the laws have been suspended, the only option to protect forests will be direct action: bodies against bulldozers, young women living in trees, impromptu encampments in the snows of the Cascades and Rockies.
Not long ago, the occupation of cutting down big trees ranked as one of the most dangerous around. Now, thanks to the connivance of Bush, Daschle, and the big enviro groups, the job of protecting them will be fraught with even more peril. Those brave young forest defenders, forced into the woods as a thin green line against the chainsaws, should send their bail requests to the Sierra Club and their medical bills to the Wilderness Society.

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