The Multinational Monitor

November 2003 - VOLUME 24 - NUMBER 11

T h e  F a t e  o f  t h e  F o r e s t s

Fire, Forests and the Bush Administration’s
“Healthy Forest” Plan for Increased Logging

By Orna Izakson

In August 2002, the largest fire in the nation that year skittered and leaped across a steep and rocky landscape, through a unique ecosystem and the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in the southeast corner of Oregon. On the ground, the Biscuit fire left a pastiche of char and green in the mountains just east of the Pacific, a land sparsely populated with a mix of traditional loggers and miners along with hippies, activists and back-to-the-landers.

The Biscuit fire earned lots of time on the television airwaves, but its ecological impact was far less severe than its roaring flames and news commentators suggested. "About 20 percent of the area within the fire perimeter was completely unburned," says Tim Ingalsbee, director of the Western Fire Ecology Center. "It was a beautiful, very natural mosaic, well within the area's historic range of variability. That's why folks have dubbed the Biscuit fire the gentle giant."

But the Bush administration saw opportunity in the fire. As the 500,000-acre fire was dying, President Bush came to the area to survey the damage and offer assurances.

"We've got to change [forest] policy, starting with setting priorities, right off the bat, about getting after those areas that are dangerous -- dangerous to communities, dangerous to habitat, dangerous to recreational areas," Bush said. "There are some high priority areas that we need to declare emergencies and get to thinning now, before it's too late."

With the ashes still warm, Bush presented the centerpiece of his policy for public forests, the Healthy Forest Initiative. He told the fire-weary citizenry that his plan would:

  • Speed up logging in the name of fire prevention;
  • Minimize or eliminate environmental analyses of such projects' effects on wildlife or the landscape;
  • Eliminate procedural safeguards that provide a check against logging promotion by the Forest Service -- in other words, the right of citizens to sue if a proposed action violates environmental laws.

A year later, fires raging in southern California helped Bush push portions of the Healthy Forests Initiative through Congress. That legislation -- now being hammered into its final form by lawmakers trying to reconcile House and Senate versions -- is only a small piece of a comprehensive effort to rewrite rules that for decades have allowed citizens to slow or halt unsustainable logging that endangers species and water quality.

"This fire bill is an historic thing," Ingalsbee says. "It's going to permanently change public lands management. ... This bill is attempting to paint a log truck red and call it a fire truck."

The administration's moves have little to do with preventing home-threatening blazes like those in California. But, say environmentalists, they do set the stage for large logging increases around the country if Bush gets a second term in the White House.

"The Bush administration is cutting the public out of management of our public lands, and putting timber production over other species and other values," explains Patti Goldman, an attorney with Earthjustice, which litigates for environmental groups.

"The administration is systematically dismantling the framework that we've had in place for protecting forests and species and clean water put into place under presidents Nixon and Ford," Goldman says. "It's turning the clock way back. And it's hard even to think of how far back -- it's really before Earth Day, before we had all the various responses to Earth Day and the laws that were enacted in the 1970s."

The Forest Service has been rewriting obscure but critical rules since Bush took office, says Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.

"There is a unifying theme to all of these rule changes," Stahl says. "And the unifying theme is to go back and look at the last 20 years of successful environmental litigation, parse each judge's opinion to determine exactly what word, phrase or sentence in the rules the judge relied upon, and then eliminate that word, phrase or sentence. Either eliminate it or eviscerate it."

When environmentalists shut down logging on national forests in the Pacific Northwest under the first President Bush to protect the Northern spotted owl, it had nothing to do with the Endangered Species Act. In fact, their lawsuit turned on two of the arcane rules the Bush administration is expected to change by the end of 2003.

The first requires that the landscape-scale plans each national forest writes include an evaluation of environmental impacts. The second requires the Forest Service to maintain viable populations of critters on its lands to ensure the biological diversity required under the National Forest Management Act.

The spotted owl lawsuit looked at the environmental impacts reported in several forest plans, and charged that those analyses were not accurate and that the bird would suffer if logging proceeded as planned. A Seattle judge shut the chainsaws out of the region's national forests until the agency produced a plan ensuring the viability of owls and other species on those lands. The injunction lasted until Bill Clinton ousted the senior Bush from the White House and commissioned a team of scientists to write a plan that would pass scientific and judicial muster.

"The Forest Service hopes to never see another spotted owl lawsuit," Stahl says.

Industry and the agency argue that the broad planning documents do not actually do anything to the land and so should not need environmental reviews. In a way that makes sense, since it's the individual action on the ground that has the environmental impact.

"With the limited funds, I think it's more important to do the analysis on the ground level instead of some ivory tower planning exercise," says Chris West of the American Forest Resource Council, an industry group.

Further, he says, the rules about maintaining species should not mean every species on every acre.

"There are lots of checks and balances in terms of species protection and there's no way that any management activity is going to put a population at risk. The viability regulation should be there to protect species, not a hook to be obstructionist in court."

But Stahl argues that the environmental assessment of landscape plans was exactly the right approach from an ecosystem management perspective. The only way to address landscape-scale processes and wide-ranging critters such as owls, grizzly bears or wolves is to consider the big picture, he says.

"It's scientifically impossible to show that one individual timber sale will be the straw that breaks the owl's back," he says. "It's even hard to show that with a year's worth of timber sales. ... You protect wildlife, you protect water quality, you protect scenery across the big landscapes. But the Forest Service doesn't make any money protecting wildlife, protecting water quality, protecting scenery. It makes its money cutting trees -- or nowadays it makes its money putting out fires."

Industry's Interest
To Chris West, environmentalists don't like what Bush is doing not because it will harm species or water quality, but because it locks them out of obstructionist lawsuits. Winning in court often translates into attorneys fees, which in turn fund new legal challenges.

But he agrees that Bush's forest policy shifts the debate.

"The previous administration's agenda for these public lands was preserving ecological processes, from my perspective," he says. "This administration has decided that their agenda for these lands is reducing catastrophic losses due to fire, insects, disease and other natural events so that they're protecting wildlife and watersheds and communities."

That's important to his members, whose lands often abut national forests. "Most are mortgaged pretty heavy to own that timber land and it's not something that you can insure," he says. "I think we've reached a point where we have to address and modernize and update these laws. The simple fact is the last four years have been devastating to watersheds and wildlife habitat and communities, and we've got to address this issue. That's what the president's initiative and this legislation do."

The key, he says, is forest health. The legacy of a century of fire suppression -- which no one disputes -- is a forest stocked with fuels waiting to be burned.

West went down to Lake Arrowhead in southern California for a meeting in September, and saw the bug-killed trees surrounding the community there.

"I was scared to death," he says. "It was a disaster waiting to happen."

A few months later, the forest West saw did burn. A hunter's flare gun lit the spark -- humans started all of the fires ringing the Los Angeles and San Diego areas -- but the fuel was the bug-prone legacy of a century-old clearcut.

Back in 2002, Bush argued that regulation and litigation were preventing the Forest Service from pruning forests as needed to prevent fire. "There's so many regulations, and so much red tape, that it takes a little bit of effort to ball up the efforts to make the forests healthy. And plus, there's just too many lawsuits, just endless litigation."

But will the president's initiative -- legislation, rule changes and all -- actually stop or slow fire?

Aside from the fact that no government action can change the West's drought or stop the Santa Ana winds, the law pushed to passage by the California blazes would have done little to stop them. The flames fed mostly on chaparral, a shrub ecosystem that no one wants to log and that fires routinely burn. The forest fire in the bug-killed trees West saw broke out six months after California Governor Gray Davis asked for federal help to clear the danger, but that help was refused.

Despite the agency claim that environmentalist lawsuits have prevented clearing out flammable forest materials -- an assertion refuted by several reports by the nonpartisan General Accounting Office -- no such appeals have taken place in the forests of southern California in the past six years, says Christine Ambrose of the American Lands Alliance.

And while the new law would authorize Congress to allocate money for clearing fire hazards around homes, there's no certainty that the money would actually be appropriated. Even if it is, the new law would not increase the percentage actually going for such activities -- or speed its transfer to communities at risk.

Environmentalists charge that Bush used the fires as a smokescreen: By playing on the public's fear for their homes, he pushed through fundamental legal changes that will ramp up logging in the back country -- where fires least affect humans and where the most valuable trees remain.

The new law would lock in regulatory changes the administration made to a class of activities that don't require environmental analyses -- or much notice to neighbors or environmentalists. Such exclusions were originally intended to cover activities with no landscape impact, Ambrose explains, for instance putting in new toilets. But now a variety of disease- and fire-related activities are allowed, including logging to prevent the spread of insects, reducing hazardous fuels, commercial thinning of dense stands, and salvage of dead and dying trees.

"Anything could qualify as �hazardous fuels reduction' from their perspective," Ambrose says. "Really, what could be more fire proof than a parking lot?"

Nothing limits that logging to the areas of greatest concern, the wildland-urban interface where homes abut the forest, environmentalists say.

Senate backers of the law are quick to point out that their version contains provisions protecting ancient forests. But activists worry that the loopholes -- for forests with insect, wind or storm damage -- are so broad that any forest could be at risk.

"These are the qualities that make old growth old growth," says Scott Greacen of the Environmental Protection Information Center in the redwood region of California. "Spotted owls nest in snags, in diseased and broken trees. Those are the ecological qualities of old growth that they're targeting for removal."

The move is national, and its effects will be felt wherever trees grow on public lands.

In the Southeast, for instance, federal land managers years ago planted fast-growing pine trees where only few pines naturally grew, notes Marty Bergoffen of the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project. The native Southern pine beetle evolved there, its population historically kept in check by the low numbers of pines. Bug numbers have skyrocketed in the new trees.

"The solution, of course, is to cut them all down," Bergoffen says cynically of the Forest Service vision. "Clearcutting isn't the answer because it will create a huge loss of topsoil," he says, and there are biological and other ways to control the infestation.

Goldman, of Earthjustice, says she wouldn't have the same objections to fast tracking projects near homes and involving small trees.

But environmentalists fear the Forest Service will abuse its new authority and use the language of forest health to greenwash otherwise unpopular logging in roadless areas with ancient forests rather than to do the unprofitable work of clearing out flammable brush.

"Many of the Bush administration's rollbacks will be challenged," Goldman predicts, "and I think many of them will fall. But if we have to live under these changes, I think it will be very difficult for the public to influence public land management and to challenge some very bad actions."

Ingalsbee predicts that Bush's Healthy Forests Initiative will lead to more forests burning. Logging doesn't necessarily help, especially without requirements to take out the small slash and other debris that result from a logging operation. In fact, young trees, with their masses of pitchy needles, are perfect fire fuel.

"Likely what we'll see five years from now is big wildfires burning across big clearcuts."

Back in southern Oregon, where the Biscuit fire launched the Healthy Forests Initiative a year ago, the Forest Service is gearing up to get a massive cut out.

Only about 16 percent of the area was severely burned, but the Forest Service hopes to log 29,000 acres, including 12,000 in a roadless area locals hoped to turn into a national park. The amount of lumber projected to come off that land equals about half of what the Northwest Forest Plan predicted (but overestimated) could come off the entire region's forests in a year.

Greacen, of the Environmental Protection Information Center, says Bush has turned forest policy on its head.

"They have changed all the rules," he says. "It is a sweeping, comprehensive sea change in forest management policy that has no relationship to what the public wants or even to what the policymakers think they're doing, which is addressing fire issues. That's not what the Healthy Forests Initiative is about. The Healthy Forests Initiative is a way to justify industrial forest management -- where you're going to fix things by logging them harder." n

Orna Izakson is an environmental journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

Surrendering to Big Timber

Attorney Patrick Parenteau is a veteran of the Northwest timber wars, having defended the spotted owl in court when the first President Bush wanted to expedite logging by overriding protections for the threatened bird.

Now a professor at Vermont Law School, one of the top programs in the country for training environmental lawyers, Parenteau has seen a lot of legal wheeling and dealing.

But, he says, he's never seen anything like the dance Bush is doing in court with the timber industry.

What's raised Parenteau's ire are documents released under the federal Freedom of Information Act showing how the administration settled several cases brought by industry challenging aspects of the Northwest Forest Plan -- the landmark Clinton-era plan that was supposed to end lawsuits over the region's forests that did nothing of the sort.

"This is the most stunning example I've seen in my career of an industry literally dictating the terms of settlement and the administration giving the industry exactly what it demanded in the settlement, with no adjudication of the merits [of the case] and no possibility of intervention," he says.

Industry had sued on several points. After Bush II came to office, industry lawyers offered to settle all of the cases if the government accepted their suggestions for regulatory changes necessary to triple logging on public lands. When the Forest Service accepted only two of the points, industry responded by saying only the whole package would suffice. The agency capitulated.

In so doing, Bush gave away more than the courts ever could have, says Patti Goldman, one of the Earthjustice attorneys involved with the cases and the Freedom of Information Act request.

In just one of several examples, the industry sued to force a new evaluation of the status of the spotted owl, although one was already in the works. The suit was filed too late, Goldman says, but the government settled anyway. The settlement took the review from the experts at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and, for the first time in history, allowed a private firm with ties to industry to perform the study. The government also agreed to review habitat protections for the bird and reimbursed the industry's attorneys' fees.

"That's the most stunning example of this sort of orchestrated manipulation of the judicial process," Parenteau says.

Chris West of the American Forest Resource Council, an industry group, says it is disingenuous of Earthjustice and other environmental attorneys to cry foul.

"Where did we learn this stuff? And Earthjustice, it's hilarious that they are trying to make a big deal out of the first page of their litigation manual."

All judges, he says, encourage outside settlements to avoid wasting court time. The changes to the Northwest Forest Plan are all minor fixes the Clinton administration simply refused to make.

"The environmentalists aren't going to be happy because it doesn't allow them to block the implementation, but that wasn't the point of the plan."

Parenteau, for his part, is cynical. While the judge in the case that led to the plan's creation said the final document was just barely stringent enough to meet the law's requirements, that judge is now dead and Bush is changing the underlying rules.

"Why not just turn over management of the Northwest Forests to the timber industry," Parenteau asks. "Why go through this charade of settlements and lawsuits?"

-- O.I.