Bush’s Healthy Forests Initiative makes both ecological and economical sense


POSTED: Aug. 6, 2003 5:47 p.m.

As it has in many other states, the U.S. government has badly mismanaged its federally owned forest lands in North Carolina. Years of a “zero tolerance” fire policy have left forests and rangelands overgrown and full of diseased and infested trees. Although these policies were well- intentioned efforts to protect the land from destructive fires, they have unfortunately had the opposite effect.

This is a classic case of the remedy being worse than the disease. Forests are naturally burned by fires sparked by lightning. If left alone, the forests would burn in low- level, low-intensity fires every few years. Such fires typically occur when the weather has been unseasonably dry and the vegetation and undergrowth has begun to grow denser. In general, these naturally occurring fires burn at low temperatures and do not reach the tops of the trees. These fires clear out the undergrowth and dead and diseased trees while allowing the strongest, most fire resistant trees to survive.

Instead of recognizing natural fires as part of the life cycle of the forest, however, about 100 years ago people demanded that the government do something to stop all fires, and the U.S. created a successful firefighting program. Yet with zero tolerance, the land management practices intended to stop catastrophic fires were, year after year, actually building tinderboxes ready to ignite in a massive fires that kill all trees and sterilize the soil.

Today, much of North Carolina’s forestlands are at risk of going up in flames. Many stands have not been cleared in years. Not only does this provide fuel for fires, but it also helps insects thrive and weakens trees, making them more likely to contribute to the fire than to withstand it. Fortunately, North Carolina has not suffered through drought conditions recently as have many western states, where there are many more national forests and publicly-owned lands. However, the fires blazing out West should be a warning of the possible disaster that could strike if the weather does turn abnormally dry.

North Carolina has some of the most beautiful forestland in the country and should no longer tolerate land management practices that puts them, or the private property that borders them, at risk. Fortunately, there’s another way.

President Bush has proposed, and the U.S. House of Representatives has passed, a bill, H.R. 1904, that will better protect the forests while at the same time finding economic uses for the biomass and excess trees that help create these dangerous conditions. This effort, called the Healthy Forests Initiative, manages lands in a way that works with nature’s cycle instead of trying to suppress it.

Under Healthy Forests, commercial interests will be allowed to gain from clearing the underbrush and the excess and dead trees, while at the same time getting rid of the conditions that make catastrophic, high-heat, soil- sterilizing fires likely.

There is consensus that forests and other public lands have been mismanaged and are overgrown. However, some environmental groups have rallied against the Healthy Forests Initiative because it allows logging companies to cut down some trees in new areas. The “greens” instead advocate clearing the forest only through prescribed and controlled burns.

The president’s plan includes prescribed burns as well. However, these types of fires are risky and sometimes uncontrollable without some selected logging as well.

The Healthy Forests Initiative is the only plan that will fully protect the forests, allow commercial interests and taxpayers to profit from the removal of excess biomass and trees, and allow private landowners to worry less about blazing infernos engulfing their property.

The Healthy Forest Initiative is a win-win proposition for all involved and North Carolinians should look forward to the day when the U.S. Senate passes H.R. 1904 and sends it to President Bush to sign into law.

Jonathan Hill is the North Carolina director for Citizens for a Sound Economy, a grass-roots organization dedicated to lower taxes and less government.