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Sierra Magazine
Lay of the Land

Twice Burned? The Los Alamos fire rekindles debate over logging

If anyone has a right to take a hard-line stance against "controlled burns" in the nation's forests, it's Jim Rickman. The Los Alamos, New Mexico, county councilor lost his home to the runaway blaze that leveled more than 200 dwellings and charred nearly 50,000 acres in his community in May. His mother's house was destroyed too, along with those of dozens of friends and neighbors-families 37-year-old Rickman had delivered newspapers to while growing up in the area. Today Rickman is adjusting to the unanticipated inconveniences of apartment life-like carting his wash to a communal laundry room-and pondering the chore of replacing all his possessions.

But instead of joining the chorus of conservative lawmakers who want lands agencies to do away with intentional burns altogether (substituting them, in many cases, with accelerated logging), Rickman puts his life-altering experience in sober perspective. "Sometimes fire is a good thing, a necessary thing," he says. "Despite what I've lost, I still support the concept of prescribed burns." Neighbor Marvel Kellogg is just as resolute. "We lost our property and publishing business," says Kellogg. "Needless to say the fire has been devastating. But eliminating the burns is clearly not the answer."

Not that those views mean much to the lawmakers who have decided, like Representative Joe Skeen (R) of New Mexico, that the federal government's controlled-burn policy is "out of control." Not coincidentally, most of them supported the salvage-logging rider of the mid-1990s, when environmental laws were suspended so that commercial loggers could cull fire- and insect-damaged forests. The result was healthy live trees being offered up to loggers in order to make salvage logging profitable.

Representative Helen Chenoweth-Hage (R-Idaho) is leading the drive for "thinning" and "partial harvests," along with brush clearing, to replace controlled burns. In hearings on Capitol Hill in June, she charged that "the politics of a preservationist elite" caused the Clinton administration to prefer prescribed burns, thereby setting the stage for the New Mexico fire. The timber industry responded on cue, linking fire risk to President Clinton's proposed national-forest roadbuilding ban. "Many of these roadless areas are in overcrowded forests at high risk for insects, disease, and fire," wrote Theodore Rossi, president of Rossi American Hardwoods, in a letter to the Hartford Courant. "To eliminate the option of accessing these areas forever . . . is shortsighted. The fire at Los Alamos is a sign of things to come."

But Sierra Club Southwest Regional Director Rob Smith says that "land-management policies based on commercial logging, aggressive fire suppression, and grazing are what created the problem." Many people now understand that years of Smokey Bear-style fire control prevented small fires from naturally and safely clearing the forest floor of debris-a process that prescribed burns attempt to replicate. But fewer realize that grazing removes grasses that encourage regular, moderate fires, or that fires tend to burn more intensely in areas that have been logged. They are drier and less shaded than natural forests, and the "slash piles" left behind by logging crews make perfect tinder. (See "Big Timber's Big Lies.")

As with salvage logging, the problem for the timber industry is that the small-diameter trees that choke public forests after years of fire suppression have little commercial value. Without strict controls, "thinning" regimens could simply encourage logging of mature trees as well.

Complicating the debate is the fact that trimming of dense undergrowth- particularly adjacent to developed communities-may be appropriate. New Mexico Representative Tom Udall (D) has suggested "pre-commercial thinning" of trees too small for commercial use. Even Sam Hitt of Forest Guardians (an organization that, like the Sierra Club, favors an end to logging in national forests) has called for labor-intensive thinning of the canyons around Santa Fe. But sale of logs taken from the lands would be prohibited.

In the wake of the New Mexico blaze, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, the White House, and dozens of national newspaper editorials reiterated their support of a (somewhat revised) federal fire-management policy.

Noting that less than one percent of prescribed burns get out of control, the U.S. Forest Service recently issued a draft study calling for the biggest increase ever in spending on the controlled-burn program. But the debate will only get hotter as commercial timber interests swap their old salvage-logging caps for new fire-management ones. It's a fight familiar to the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations, who will this time have to convince lawmakers that citizens want to protect their homes and their forests.
By Reed McManus

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