Forest Fire Plan Kindles Debate

Fires burning in the western United States have already scorched over 2.5 million hectares of forest this summer. Now the White House wants to prevent such conflagrations by paying loggers to cut smaller trees. The proposal is generating heat among ecologists, who say the approach may not be right for all forests.

Some leaders of western states blame this summer's record-breaking blazes on current forest management policies, including suppressing wildfires and logging only mature trees. In response, the Clinton Administration said last week it will soon release a plan that emphasizes aggressive cutting of smaller trees. The plan is expected to propose paying loggers nearly $825 million a year to remove trees too small to be commercially valuable from 16 million hectares of western forests.

The plan draws heavily from insights into fire control on federally managed lands made by ecologist Wallace Covington of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. In one case, for example, the Forest Service paid professional loggers to remove 90% of the trees from a 36-hectare swath of low-altitude ponderosa pine in the Kaibab National Forest near Flagstaff. When a wildfire unexpectedly swept through the area last June, it burned the sparsely populated stand far less severely than the denser surrounding forest. With less fuel, the flames could no longer leap from treetop to treetop and could only spread along the underbrush.

But other ecologists say different combinations of cuts and burns may achieve the same results as widespread logging with less disruption to the forest. Covington's approach "doesn't use as wide an array of possible tools as we're using," says Phil Weatherspoon of the Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Research Station in Redding, California. The station sponsors an 11-site project that is examining various fire prevention schemes, from mechanical cutting alone to just prescriptive burns. Forest managers, he says, should get data on the potential costs and ecological consequences of various approaches before proceeding.

Related sites
Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University
Fire and Fire Surrogate Treatments Study
National Interagency Fire Center