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Environmental Counterblaze Distorts a Government Report

July 12, 2002

By Holly Lippke Fretwell

BOZEMAN, Mont. – As cool, moist air at last reaches the Rocky Mountain West, some of the largest fires in Colorado and Arizona history are finally fading. Remaining fresh in our minds, however, are the bitter debates over the causes of those fires. By misusing a government report, environmentalists evaded blame for their protests against critical forest thinning and prescribed burns.

It has become widely known that the conflagrations across the West are the result of years of drought, fire suppression, and past logging practices. Reducing fuels through thinning of overly dense forests and prescribed burns is an accepted solution. The Manitou Experimental Forest in Colorado, where these treatments have been practiced for fifty years, shows how effective they can be. When the 137,000-acre Hayman fire in Colorado reached the experimental forest, it swept through grasses and ground cover but spared the large, thick-barked ponderosa pines.

Indeed, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Southwest Forest Alliance, and other environmental organizations all pay lip service to thinning small-diameter trees and to prescribed burns. So why don’t we see more thinning and prescribed burning, particularly in the urban-wildland interface where life and property are at greatest risk?

The fact is that environmental organizations have opposed logging, including restorative thinning, for years. Their opposition has played a deadly role in helping the fuel buildup to reach dangerous levels. And many continue to oppose projects that would reduce fire risk. The Sierra Club and Forest Guardians, among others, have appealed an Arizona project that is desperately needed and supported by a consortium of federal, state, and local organizations known as the Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership. Based in Flagstaff, Arizona, the partnership devised a thinning project that would cut only trees up to 16 inches in diameter, with 60 to 80 trees left per acre after thinning. But four years later this area surrounding Flagstaff remains a tinderbox.

The intensity of the fires in Arizona and Colorado were just beginning to focus criticism on environmentalists for their resistance to logging when, late in June, the Center for Biological Diversity dropped a bombshell. It reported that the General Accounting Office (GAO) had exonerated environmentalists from responsibility. As reported by the center and picked up by regional newspapers, the GAO had found that only 20 out of 1671 "hazardous fuels reductions projects" that is fewer than one percent, had been slowed by appeals.

Critics of environmental groups were caught unprepared by the difference between what they knew was happening in the forests and what the GAO was purported to have said. What the report did not mention, and environmental groups failed to point out, was that each of these projects had already been through the process of environmental assessment and appeals before the GAO had begun its examination. These projects were already approved, ready to go, and waiting for funding. One would expect none, or at least very few, of these projects to be appealed at that point, many of them had likely been appealed already. The GAO did not consider whether any of these projects had faced earlier litigation.

Superficially, this looked like vindication for environmental activists, and numerous environmental organizations flaunted the 1 percent figure, among them the Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and Wilderness Society. Newspapers quoted it as well.

Even as they drape themselves in this "exoneration," many environmental groups are using the appeals process to delay projects that would reduce fuel buildup. The latest information from the Forest Service is that 48 percent of the forest thinning projects proposed over the last 18 months were appealed.

In April, a salvage sale to remove Engelman spruce killed by beetle infestation was held up in Utah’s Manti-la Sal National Forest. Also this year, ecosystem restoration was appealed on the Oachita National Forest in Arkansas. Such appeals continue a long history of resistance. In the mid-1990s, environmentalists protested thinning a stand of trees in the Coconino National Forest in Arizona because it was near the nest of an endangered goshawk. In 1996, the trees and the goshawk nest! went up in flames. In fact, the 1996 fires, plus reduced Forest Service timber sales due to protests, led to the formation of the Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership, which is still struggling to get its restoration effort going due to environmentalists’ opposition.

Environmentalists may have scrambled to safety this time, thanks to the widespread misinterpretation of the GAO report. But fires will continue to burn unless the environmental opponents change their actions, not just their rhetoric.

Holly Lippke Fretwell is a research associate at PERC and the author of four reports on Public Lands

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