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Wildfires should motivate a new century of forest restoration

By Thomas M. Bonnicksen, Ph.D.
web posted September 30, 2002

"The most reprehensible waste is that of destruction, as in forest fires," President Theodore Roosevelt said nearly a century ago. His comment is as true today as it was then. Teddy Roosevelt founded the "forest conservation" movement to restore America's forests and stop wasteful fires. His solution: Protect forests by quickly putting out fires.

A large brushg fire burns close to homes in La Verne, Calif., forcing residents to evacuate Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2002. Unfortunately, the policy of total fire suppression was a disaster. Without naturally occurring fire, and with little or no management in many areas, forests grew thicker and more flammable as the century progressed. Today, horrific wildfires are wreaking terrible havoc in loss of human and animal life as well as property.

It is therefore fitting for President George W. Bush to respond to the wildfire crisis by offering a 21st century vision for America's forests that incorporates our greater understanding of forestry. As the president said in announcing his Healthy Forests Initiative in August, "We must reverse a century of misguided mismanagement of our forests. We must undertake a new century of forest restoration."

President Bush announced his initiative within sight of the Biscuit Fire in southern Oregon. This fire burned one-half million acres and cost $135 million to fight. That is $270 per acre, which does not include the cost of rehabilitation. That money would have been better spent on preventing the disaster.

The Biscuit Fire illustrates what is wrong with our forest policy and why President Bush wants to correct it. Instead of carefully managing our forests, we let wildfire do it for us. Consequently, we get fire-ravaged landscapes, burned homes, silt clogged streams and reservoirs, wildlife habitat destroyed and society denied all the values that a wisely managed forest could produce forever. There is no defense for this policy of neglect and waste.

Sadly, some environmentalists would rather see our forests burn than admit that humans can play a constructive role in nature. President Bush will have to display determination worthy of a Roosevelt to overcome these misguided opponents. Teddy Roosevelt did not just talk about conservation from his bully pulpit; he threw the full weight of his office behind it. President Bush must do the same for restoration.

Restoration forestry is more than planting trees on blackened hillsides. It is about preventing the disaster in the first place. That means managing whole forests rather than just scratching defensive fire lines around communities and watching the surrounding forest burn.

Even so, restoration does not mean managing a forest just to make it fireproof. Restoration forestry is natural management. It uses the historic forest as a model for the future forest. No scientist or environmentalist could conceive of more beautiful or sustainable forests, with more wildlife, than those found by the first explorers. Resistance to monster wildfires is just one of the most important benefits of restoration.

How do we do it? The answer is a simple three-step process: document the historic forest and then restore and maintain it. In many cases, we already know what our historic forests looked like and how they got that way. If needed, we can complete the description quickly and easily using well-known methods.

Next comes restoring the forest. While prescribed burning can help, we cannot just put fire back into an unnatural forest and expect to get something natural. Right now, our forests are too dense. What we must do first is thin our forests and create new openings for young trees like those that existed historically. Then we can use prescribed fire. The goal is to restore the balance of living things that characterized the complete historic forest.

Once restored, a forest requires maintenance. Therefore, cutting and burning to mimic historical fires is essential. Like a historic forest, the restored forest will be dynamic, but it will always contain about the same number of younger and older trees.

Finally, how do we pay for it? Redirecting some of the National Fire Plan money toward restoration forestry, which provides $400 million a year for fuel reduction, would help. However, we cannot succeed without a partnership with the private sector because there is too little public money to do the job. That means private companies harvest only the trees required for restoration and in exchange they get to sell the wood. This is just common sense - why allow our forests to burn if we can use them in a way that also restores them?

Restoration forestry will reduce wildfires, improve forest health, and generate funds to help pay the cost. More important, it will recover the beauty and diversity of our historic forests. Restoration is a worthy vision for America.

Dr. Thomas M Bonnicksen is Professor of Forest Science at Texas A&M University and author of the book America's Ancient Forests: From the Ice Age to the Age of Discovery published in 2000 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. He also serves on the National Center for Public Policy Research Advisory Board.

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