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Logging makes forest-fire problem worse -- not better

Since the prescribed burns near Los Alamos and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon triggered wildfires earlier this month, we have begun to witness a predictable response from the friends of the logging industry. One such response appeared in the Readers' Forum section of the Deseret News on May 25 under the title "Give forest policies the ax."

The letter argued that logging could be used to reduce fuel loads on our nation's forests, thus significantly reducing the risk of wildfire. The author of this letter echoed the rhetoric of many Western politicians and timber industry spokesmen when she stated " . . . unmanaged [unlogged] forests are going to cost us billions of dollars in firefighting costs and property damage."In reality, logging enhances the risk of catastrophic forest fires. Logging operations generate a great deal of what is commonly referred to as "slash." Slash is made up of unwanted branches and other woody debris left behind by loggers. Slash piles are potential bonfires waiting to happen and are frequently left in the opening created by the logging. Exposed to sun and wind, these piles of dead wood are drier than the typical litter that covers a forest floor.

In addition, clearcutting or thinning a stand of trees creates openings that make the forest more vulnerable to the effects of wind and solar radiation. The shade that once helped keep the forest floor cool and moist is gone after a logging operation is completed. The roads required to facilitate timber removal also fragment wildlife habitat and facilitate future public access to the area, making man-caused fires a greater risk.

In short, there is nothing about logging that reduces the risk of wildfire. In truth, the risk is substantially increased in a forest altered by heavy logging. Logging advocates argue that by removing dead or dying trees they are reducing the risk of wildfire.

While it may seem counterintuitive, there is substantial evidence that dead trees actually slow the advance of a wild fire, especially under the dry conditions normally associated with these fires. The timber industry claims that trees that have died due to beetle infestations or disease should be removed lest they go to waste, but in Alaska, these dead "useless" trees slowed the advance of a wildfire on the Kenai Peninsula.

John LeClair, a fire management specialist for Alaska, stated that during wildfires in 1991, standing dead trees helped crews bring the fires under control. "When it [the fire] hit the bug kill, it became more approachable. The fire crews could start flanking it," LeClair said. Other firefighters reported that when the Alaska fires hit the green trees, the resin within the needles caused the dry living trees to start "going up like bombs."

If there is one thing that should be clear to everyone after the tragedy at Los Alamos, it is that years of fire suppression on the part of the federal government has failed miserably. Fire suppression, together with other activities such as livestock grazing, has led to a substantial increase in the amount of woody material within national parks and forests.

To avert similar mishaps in the future, the government does not need to step up the pace of logging. The road to recovery within our forests, and subsequent reduction in the risk of future catastrophic wildfires, is well-known within the scientific and forest management communities.

First, the government needs to establish a policy that allows for natural fire to occur. As May drew to a close, the Dixie National Forest was mobilizing massive amounts of human and financial resources to put out fires on the Escalante Ranger District that were burning very near the site of a proposed 15,000 acre prescribed fire. Why is the Forest Service spending precious time and resources putting out a fire near the site of a proposed prescribed burn?

The U.S. government also needs to get out of the ranching business. Livestock devour the grasses and flowering plants that compete with young saplings for light, water and nutrients. By removing these natural competitors over the past 150 years, livestock have created an explosion in the amount of woody material growing and dying within our national forests. Fire is a natural part of a functioning forest environment. By putting out every fire, no matter how small or far away from human settlement, the Park Service, Forest Service and other agencies have helped create numerous disasters that are just waiting to happen.

Craig Axford is program director of the Utah Environmental Congress based in Salt Lake City.