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The Planet
How to Protect Homes from Forest Fires?
Cut all the Trees

By Brian Vanneman

From the San Bernadino National Forest east of Los Angeles to the Rocky Mountains in Montana, the west is dried out. This is the fifth year of drought conditions in the region, and by some measures, the risk of wildfires to communities, national forests, and wildlife habitats has never been greater.

Like it or not, the Bush administration has a plan. Over the opposition of the Sierra Club and a wide range of allies, the Bush administration pushed its so-called "Healthy Forests Restoration Act" through Congress last November. According to the plan’s introductory "purposes" section, goal number one is "to reduce wildfire risk to communities."

But the initiative’s stated goals simply serve to justify opening up millions of acres of backcountry forests to logging. Since the bill’s passage, the administration has spent $5.8 million to plan the Biscuit timber sale in Oregon, and set aside another $5 million to plan the cutting of Alaska’s Tongass forest. "Every dollar that goes towards a backcountry logging project is a dollar that can’t be spent protecting lives and property," says Tim Allyn, a Sierra Club forests representative based in Los Angeles.

Though the administration vowed to set aside $760 million this year for fuel reduction around communities, the president’s 2005 budget contained only $475 million. Yet, says Allyn, "estimates are that it would cost between $400 and $800 million to protect homes in Southern California’s San Bernadino Forest alone."

The plan that the Bush administration pitched as "safeguarding people, wildlife, and ecosystems," has not delivered on its pledge in California—where in 2003 the nation watched as residents evacuated their homes and airplanes were grounded. During one weekend in October, 13 people lost their lives, while 700 buildings and 250,000 acres burned.

Six hundred miles north, the Bush administration’s Forest Service appointees have released their plan for the biggest timber sale on public land since the advent of modern environmental law in the early 1970s. The Biscuit timber sale, in Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest, is the archetypal "Healthy Forests" project: widespread fires burn (in this case, in 2002), then the administration contends that the best way to restore the forest and protect communities is by logging in the burned areas and beyond. This despite the fact that Forest Service research shows that the most effective way to prevent homes from burning is to clear trees and brush from the area directly around them.

In its final proposal, released on June 1, the Forest Service made 370 million board feet available for logging. That means between 75,000 and 100,000 truck loads of large diameter trees. Approximately 80 percent of the cutting would be in inventoried roadless areas or old-growth reserves. Ivan Maluski, the Club’s lead forests organizer in Oregon, also points out that, "the Biscuit sale area supports some of the country’s healthiest runs of wild salmon, and they want massive logging in these key watersheds."

As in the L.A. area, the administration’s logging plan has failed to address the concerns of Oregonians. Unlike the San Bernadino hills, the Illinois Valley, which borders the Siskiyou National Forest, is sparsely populated—the largest town in the area has less than 1,500 residents.

Elaine Wood—a Rogue Group excom member and self described "chief instigator"—is one resident of the Illinois Valley who has yet to see any community protection delivered by Healthy Forests.

Wood is also a realist. She knows that the best protection for her home and others up and down I-199 will come from long hours spent clearing undergrowth, sawing off dead lower limbs, and felling some trees that are too close to her doorstep. Manpower and money for fire protection might also come from local Bureau of Land Management employees and community groups with whom she has spent years developing partnerships.

But she would appreciate some truth in advertising. So when the Bush administration pitches the Biscuit sale as an "investment in the land and people," she balks. "I don’t see any money," she says, "They just want to get in and get as much timber as they can."

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