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Conservation IssuesWHY IS THE WEST BURNING?
Pat Sziber

by Pat Sziber

From the time that this year's very first wildfire in the west turned into a conflagration, environmentalists have been expecting to hear it from the timber industry: "We told you so." Fires are a natural and necessary part of forest ecology and this year's extraordinary heat, drought and dry winds have rendered some areas in the west a tinderbox, just waiting for a spark. But why are there so many fires and why are they so catastrophic?

The timber industry and its political allies blame lack of logging, an activity that has been reduced in national forests by more than 75% since 1989. But it appears that logging practices over the years are more likely to blame for the intensity of the fires, their rate of spread and the degree of devastation they cause. Timber harvesting removes the larger diameter trees and leaves the smaller, brushy ones as well as the remaining dry debris of twigs and needles when the logs are removed. There is also evidence that grazing contributes to wildfire risk. Left undisturbed, live grasses on the forest floor promote cool-burning ground fires that thin out the shrubby small trees before they become thickets. The native grasses also compete with the smaller trees, helping to keep the forests open and free of low-growing fuel. Grazing cattle strip this protection from the forest floor leading to higher-intensity fires.

In a report released on September 1st, the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, which analyzes policy for Congress, states that it has found no correlation between declines in logging and fire intensity or extent. Rather, evidence seems to suggest that heavy logging in the past may have made the western forests vulnerable to expansive fires because the small trees and brush that replaced the taller, older and more fire-resistant big trees are far more incendiary than an intact stand. The timber industry is going to have a hard time finding scientific evidence to support their claims. What we are seeing this year is the result of a combination of freak weather conditions and human interference with nature's way of protecting itself.

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Last revision: Thursday, October 04, 2000 - 21:51