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Fire on the Mountain

Misguided environmentalists may be the greatest threat to America's forests.

12:00 AM, May 25, 2006 • By JAMES THAYER
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The Imperial Japanese Navy tried to burn down Oregon. It failed. Sixty years later, radical environmentalists almost succeeded.

The Los Angeles Times' banner headline read "REPORT OREGON BOMBING. Jap Aircraft Carrier Believed Sunk." It was September 15, 1942. A seaplane had been spotted near Mt. Emily, Oregon, nine miles north of Brookings. A forest fire had been started near the mountain. Harold Gardner, a forest service lookout, rushed to the area and quickly extinguished the flames.

Then a forest service patrol found a foot-deep crater. Nearby were forty pounds of spongy pellets and metal fragments, some of which were stamped with Japanese ideograms. A metal nosecone was also found.

That same day a Japanese submarine was sited in the Pacific thirty miles off the Oregon coast due west of Mt. Emily. An Army patrol plane bombed the sub, but results of the bombing were unknown.

Less than a year after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had set out to strike a blow against the American mainland, but they failed to cause a massive fire in the dry Oregon forest.

Fast forward sixty years to July 13, 2002. An Oregon Department of Forestry pilot spotted a rising column of black smoke near Chetco Peak, not far from where the Japanese bomb had landed. The pilot immediately reported it to the dispatcher at Grants Pass. This fire would be named Biscuit 1.

Thirty minutes later a California Department of Forestry pilot, who was directing fire fighting efforts at Six Rivers National Forest, saw a new column of smoke to the north, up in Oregon. He called in the fire to the Fortuna dispatch center. This blaze would be named the Carter Fire. A lightening storm was passing over southwest Oregon. Within thirty minutes the pilot would spot three more fires. Over the next two days, lightening would ignite hundreds more fires in the Siskiyou forest.

The fires merged and spread into a vast conflagration that became known as the Biscuit Fire. It burned for the next five and a half months, destroying half a million acres of forest--60 miles north-to-south at its longest, and 35 miles east-to-west--causing $150 million in damage. The fire was not extinguished until New Year's Eve.

The Biscuit Fire was only one of many that season, such as the Rodeo-Chediski Fire in east-central Arizona (467,000 acres), and the Hayman Fire southwest of Denver (135,000 acres, 133 homes destroyed, 5,300 people evacuated). During the summer and fall of 2002, 88,000 wildfires charred seven million acres, an area the size of Massachusetts. More than 800 structures were destroyed. Fire fighting efforts cost $1.7 billion in addition to the lives of twenty-three firefighters.

The calamity prompted the Bush administration and Congress to act about as quickly as Washington ever does. In August, while the fires were still burning, the president proposed his Healthy Forests Initiative, which Congress soon passed as the Healthy Forest Restoration Act. The president signed it into law on December 3, 2003.

Agitation by extremists within the environmental movement had produced decades of misguided attempts at forest management. The new law will make our forests less susceptible to catastrophic fires. But because the remedy involves a concept that is anathema to extreme enviros--logging--they oppose it, and are actively working to maintain our forests as tinderboxes.

A hundred years ago, each acre of a ponderosa pine forest contained about 25 mature trees. A horse-drawn wagon could be driven through the forest without the aid of a road. Ponderosa pine is intolerant of shade, and the trees grow aggressively toward the sun, throwing shadows that discourage growth below. Today that same forest might have 1,000 trees per acre. Usually these are Douglas firs, which prosper in shade, and which grow in thick stands, often so dense that a hiker cannot pass between the trunks.

As a result of this fuel load (Forest Service terminology), forest fires today are entirely unlike those of a century ago. They are hotter, faster, and more destructive. Today, 190 million acres of public forests are at an elevated risk of fires, and twenty-four million acres are at the highest risk of catastrophic fire.

What happened to the forests? Why did they degrade? Two main reasons: the suppression of small fires that destroy weak trees and underbrush and that create fire breaks, and a lack of thinning. Which is to say, logging. The failure to cull the forests has left them little more than kindling.

And why haven't the forests been thinned over the years? A vast maze of laws and regulations promoted by environmentalists had made it virtually impossible to enter the forest with a chain saw or a feller buncher. Laws and regulations effecting thinning of the national forests ran to the thousands of pages.

Prior to the 2003 law, preparing environmental documents for even a modest thinning of a patch of national forest took anywhere from six months to ten years. Then a review of plans to sell the removed timber would take another two to four years. Eight hundred requirements had to be reviewed for each forest thinning decision and a proposal to thin a few acres might be eight hundred pages long. This paperwork added up to forty percent of the Forest Service's total workload and cost $250 million each year.

In a June 2002 report, the Forest Service concluded that it "operated within a statutory, regulatory, and administrative framework that has kept the agency from effectively addressing rapid declines in forest health." The Service termed it "excessive analysis."

Even this standard of care wasn't sufficient for the extreme environmentalists. They routinely appealed any decision to thin national forests. A glimpse of the enviros at work: between January 2001 and July 2002 they appealed every single decision to thin by logging in northern Idaho and Montana. For example, the Forest Service determined that the Payette National Forest, near Hell's Canyon in Idaho, needed to be culled. Seven law suites were filed against the plan. Only one in ten of the Forest Service's decisions to thin a forest is reversed by a court on appeal.

The delays imposed by these environmentalists can be costly, and not just in Forest Service paperwork. Mark Flatten and Dan Nowicki of Mesa's East Valley Tribune give an example. In 1999, the Forest Service approved a plan to thin 7,000 acres in the Baca Ecosystem Management Area in Arizona. The Center for Biological Diversity filed a law suit in May 2000 alleging that the Forest Service didn't adequately analyze the effects of its plan on the pygmy nuthatch, among other claims. A court agreed with the environmentalists. Thinning was allowed on only 306 acres, and only trees with less than six-inch trunk diameters could be removed. In 2002 a fire swept through the Baca project area, destroying 90 percent of it.

Not too long ago, the typical environmental lawsuit raised three or four issues. Today, they may bring up twenty or more. Five thousand actions are pending against the Forest Service. Flatten and Nowicki quoted Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, who blamed "radical environmental groups" for creating a paralysis in the Forest Service's decision-making. "They [the Forest Service] end up doing so much paperwork that is redundant and unnecessary that they don't want to even put these things out because it just takes too much of their time and effort and all they do is get sued."

How does the new law work? The amount of required paperwork is reduced, but its most powerful provisions streamline the decision process. The law specifically directs courts "to expedite, to the maximum extent practicable, the proceedings. . . ." Suits can only be brought in the district court where the land is located, which prevents judge shopping. Preliminary injunctions are limited to 60 days and the court must now take into consideration the effects of doing nothing, and must specifically consider the risk of future fires. The law also puts a strict timeline to the appeals process. New regulations allow the Forest Service to take immediate action when public lands are at substantial risk of fire due to drought or fuel buildup.

Faced with a law that has made the courts less useful, the enviros have squealed like hogs caught in a gate. The Heritage Forests Campaign decried the law as "exploiting the fear of wildfires in order to . . . boost commercial logging." Matthew Koehler of the Native Forest Network said the Bush administration and some in Congress were "cynically using the wildfires in their never-ending quest to cut more trees . . ." The Alabama Environmental Council accused President Bush of trying to "'greenwash' his logging agenda." Wilderness Society president William H. Meadows called it "cynical politicking," and said the forest "is too valuable to be handed over to the logging industry." Gazing steadily into Alice's looking glass, the Sierra Club argued that logging can increase the risk of fires.

Does thinning work? In early May 2004, 35 acres of the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge were given a "fuels treatment," as the Department of Interior calls thinning the stands of trees and removing dry brush. On May 11--a week later--lightening started a fire which the wind drove toward Ortonville, Minnesota. But the thinned forest provided the fire fighters with staging areas and fire breaks, and allowed them to quickly suppress the fire. Only 350 acres were burned.

Even reliable friends are deserting the extreme environmentalists on this issue. The liberal San Francisco Chronicle said that "leaving forests alone equates to watching them burn," and lamented that the enviros "still cling to no-action ideologies."

But facts don't mean much to ideologues. In Montana, the first major plan under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act is to remove the fuel load from the Middle East Fork drainage area in the Bitterroot National Forest. The Missoulian reports that the plan calls for logging 6,400 acres out of the area's 26,000 acres. In April, the Missoulian cautioned, "Some people view commercial logging the way others might regard loan-sharking in a cathedral."

Sure enough, earlier this month, Friends of the Bitterroot, the Ecology Center, and the Native Forest Network filed a suit against the Forest Service seeking an injunction.

James Thayer is a frequent contributor to The Daily Standard. His twelfth novel, The Gold Swan, has been published by Simon & Schuster.