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Enviros say McInnis "blowing smoke" in wildfire debate

The worst wildfires in Colorado's history may have died down, for now.

But the heated aftermath -- a battle between environmentalists and politicians who favor increased logging on public lands -- has just begun.

In the wake of the recent disastrous fires, some politicians have seized on the occasion to bash environmental advocates. Led by Congressman Scott McInnis, a Republican from Colorado's Western Slope, they are accusing conservationist groups of having contributed to the blazes by obstructing proposed logging projects that, they say, could have reduced wildfire risk by thinning national forests.

Environmentalists, on the other hand, say McInnis and his allies are exploiting the fires to promote commercial logging on public lands.

Some conservationists say they do, in fact, support what they call "sensible" forest-thinning policies -- including a bill in Congress that's co-sponsored by one of McInnis' Republican colleagues, Rep. Joel Hefley of Colorado Springs.

Malicious neglect

In a press release issued by his office earlier this month, McInnis said appeals and lawsuits filed by environmental groups have had an "extraordinary affect [sic]" by blocking the U.S. Forest Service from carrying out fuel-reduction projects on national forests, where some of the largest blazes have raged.

"America's army of environmental litigants are not responsible for this summer's drought conditions, and they certainly can't be blamed for the arsons, campfires and lightening [sic] strikes that have ignited these massive blazes," the release quoted McInnis as saying.

"But they are undeniably guilty of boxing the Forest Service into a position of malicious neglect when it comes to managing our forests. This neglectful posture has turned our forests into a fuel-rich tinderbox that is just one match, one cigarette, and one lightning strike away from exploding."

McInnis was unavailable for an interview as of press time. In his news release, he cited a recent Forest Service study that concluded that of all "appealable" thinning projects proposed by the service in recent years, about half were appealed, mainly by environmental organizations.

"It shows nothing less than a systematic campaign on the part of a few ideological purists to either slow or stop the thinning of overgrown forests," McInnis charged.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, question the validity of the study, noting that it includes appeals against commercial logging projects that were not part of the National Fire Plan, a strategy begun in 2000 to prevent wildfires.

A previous study by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, had found that of all fuel-reduction projects proposed under the National Fire Plan, only about 1 percent have been appealed.

Terribly deceptive

Jeff Berman, director of the conservation group Colorado Wild, accuses McInnis of seeking to gut the lengthy environmental review processes and appeals that usually accompany a proposed forest-thinning project. The purpose, Berman alleges, is to open up public lands for more commercial logging.

"Congressman McInnis has devised a terribly deceptive ploy to undermine the environmental analysis laws that we've had in this country for decades, using the pain and suffering that many people have experienced with these wildfires," Berman said.

Berman says Colorado Wild and other groups don't regret blocking projects that simply promote commercial logging. Commercial loggers mainly want to harvest large trees, which are usually the most fire resistant, and they have no interest in removing the dense brush and undergrowth that fuel wildfires, he says.

Indeed, Berman notes, timber interests have also appealed proposed thinning projects, because they were unhappy about diameter limits that would prohibit the felling of large, fire-resistant trees.

However, Berman says Colorado Wild supports "sensible" thinning policies, including a bill introduced earlier this year by Congressman Mark Udall, a Democrat from Boulder. The bill would direct the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior to concentrate forest-thinning efforts in areas known as "wildland-urban interface zones," where housing developments meet public wildlands. The idea is to reduce the danger that wildfires pose to people's homes.

"Environmental groups support thinning projects that would genuinely protect houses from wildfires," Berman said. "We continue to oppose squandering taxpayer dollars on thinning projects away from homes, that will do nothing to protect homes."

Udall's bill is not only backed by environmentalists, but has been co-sponsored by Hefley, who, with little fanfare, recently toured areas in his Congressional district that were damaged by the Hayman wildfire.

Hefley refused to comment for this article. However, earlier this month, the congressman explained his disinclination to politicize the wildfires: "I did not want to turn a human tragedy into a media event."

McInnis, meanwhile, also toured areas within Hefley's district and made himself available for television interviews. Moreover, the congressman, whose district also includes parts of southern Colorado, recently appeared in paid television advertisements in Colorado Springs in which he talks about the seriousness of the wildfire threats. McInnis is widely believed to be considering a run for the U.S. Senate in 2004.

Complicated matter

As for the approach advocated by Berman, Udall and Hefley, the Forest Service's own scientists say it's the best way to protect people's properties. Jack Cohen, a Forest Service wildfire expert in Missoula, Mont., has concluded from extensive research that thinning within just 100 feet to 200 feet of homes is the most effective way to protect property against wildfires.

"You can have a very significant wildfire that is quite awe-inspiring, and it is of little consequence to a structure beyond 100 to 200 feet," Cohen said.

In other words, traditional commercial logging, which usually involves cutting huge swaths of forest that may be miles from any houses, may do little to prevent property damage from wildfires.

That said, there is still reason to minimize big fires far away from homes, which may cause flooding, mudslides and water pollution, Cohen acknowledges. Appropriate strategies to prevent such fires "may include a logging sale," he said.

Consequently, Cohen doesn't endorse the "dogmatic" view that all commercial logging is bad. But he also suggests that traditional logging, in which companies capitalize on "some short-term opportunity for getting a bunch of big, straight trees," isn't the way to go, either.

Big trees are often fire resistant for several reasons, Cohen says. Because they are taller, it is harder for fire to jump from the ground and into the trees' canopies. Their bark is also thicker than that of smaller trees.

Cohen is also concerned that cutting older trees may harm a gene pool that has evolved naturally to make trees more fire-resistant.

The bottom line, Cohen says, is that proper forest management is "greatly more complicated" than what's reflected in political debates. Public lands make up a patchwork of myriad disparate ecosystems, each of which requires a highly specialized fire-prevention strategy using a combination of measures.

And even with the best approach, the idea that wildfires can somehow be stopped is nave, Cohen argues.

"We're going to have to get used to the idea that fire is inevitable, and we're not going to just control it," he said. "We're going to have to live with it."

-- Cara DeGette contributed to this report

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