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Everybody knows Smokey the Bear’s famous saying: "Only you can prevent forest fires." As fires blaze through the Arizona national forests, it seems like it is time for Smokey to visit the US Senate and deliver that message to our Senators who have yet to move on the President’s Healthy Forests Initiative.
The recent Arizona fires are fueled by pine trees devastated by years of drought, including an unseasonably dry winter this year, as well as beetle infestation, and thick vegetation. These factors combine to make a tinderbox ready to ignite from either a single bolt of lightening or a careless camper. Once the fires start, there is nothing to stop them as they use dense, dry undergrowth and dead trees to fuel the inferno.
In Arizona alone fires have already claimed more than 19,000 acres and over 250 homes this year. Firefighters estimate that the current fires are only about 15 percent contained and are still growing. They believe that they will not be able to stop the blaze until it spreads to lower elevations where the vegetation is less dense. The fires have already cost taxpayers over $2.5 million in firefighting costs alone and has destroyed many acres of private property including historic log cabins, ski lifts, ski runs, and radio towers.
Worse, while the most dramatic fires tear through forests and towns of Arizona, new fires have cropped up in New Mexico and Alaska and this seems to be only a taste of what looks to be a long and particularly devastating wildfire season.
The real tragedy in all of this is that many of these acres of now burnt and destroyed forests could have been saved from the fires. Years of land and forest mismanagement have made these lands ripe for catastrophic fires. Fire is a natural and healthy feature of the forest’s life cycle by thinning vegetation and clearing out dead trees. The fires also leave behind ash rich in nutrients to feed the surviving trees. However, around the turn of the century, catastrophic fires in America’s forest led to public outcry and essentially “zero tolerance” suppression of all fires. The result is that our forestlands are overgrown and cluttered with thick undergrowth and dead trees, creating the same conditions the earlier fires were remedying. A century of fire suppression has created the conditions for fires that burn hotter and more quickly than they have historically. This means that they spread faster, and instead of leaving behind rich soils, the excessive heat sterilizes the land, leaving it unfit for re-vegetation.
Recognizing this problem, President Bush proposed, and the House of Representatives passed, an innovative and viable plan to protect our forests: the Healthy Forests Initiative. Through a combination of proscribed burns and increased logging and undergrowth clearing, this plan will increase the sustainability of our nation’s forests. Furthermore, this plan would eliminate many levels of bureaucracy and litigation that have, to this point, prevented the forests from being properly maintained. The Healthy Forests Initiative will protect our forests, while allowing commercial interests to harvest the underbrush and the dead, and over-populated trees that all create the conditions for catastrophic fires. It will also protect the private property of many people whose homes, ranches, and businesses are threatened by these fires every year. The Healthy Forests Initiative is a useful preventative measure that works with the natural life cycle of the forest instead of trying to suppress it.
Had the guidelines of the Healthy Forests Initiative already been in place, the fires that are now blazing though one of our nations most precious resources might well have been prevented, or at least kept to low level burns that actually improve the health of the forest. It is time for the Senate to step up and pass these commonsense reforms to prevent our forests from going up in smoke.