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Ring of Fire 

With wildfires burning throughout much of the western Untied States, it is unfortunate and disturbing that the timber industry and some of their supporters have decided to use the wildfires as an excuse to advance their political agenda of increased logging and roadbuilding in America's national forests.

The timber industry and their allies are quickly blaming decreased timber sales in National Forests for the wildfires, with the hope of whipping the public into a hysteria to reverse attitudes and trends about national forest protection.

The past week has witnessed a number of western congressional representatives falling victim to such politically self-serving pleas. For example, Montana's Congressman Rick Hill recently called for the Clinton administration "to put forth new measures for the emergency recovery of vulnerable and affected timber to help prevent further devastation."

In other words, Congressman Hill's proposed solution is to "recover" -- or cut down -- any forests that are "vulnerable" to wildfire or "affected" by the current wildfires. At last count, that is all the forestland in the western United States.

This politically-driven "solution" from Congressman Hill comes despite the fact that most of the large wildfires throughout the west are currently burning in areas heavily logged and roaded during the past century -- not to mention the fact that a number of wildfires have been ignited by irresponsible logging operations themselves.

At a time when families and communities are pulling together to cope with the situation, the rhetoric from the timber industry and their supporters to increase logging in national forests to reduce the risk of fire are not only highly unethical, but their calls are also not supported by scientific facts.

The truth of the matter is commercial logging doesn't prevent wildfires, it causes them.

Since 1996, Congress has spent $57 million on scientific assessments that have concluded commercial logging to be the primary activity causing an increase in wildfire intensity and severity.

For example, the Sierra Nevada Ecosystems Project stated in a final report to Congress, "timber harvest, through its effects on forest structure, local microclimate, and fuels accumulation, has increased fire severity more than any other recent human activity."

Government studies have also revealed that no matter what logging system is used -- thinning, salvaging, or clearcutting -- areas that have been logged and roaded experience higher ignition rates, more rapid rates of fire spread, higher fire intensities and greater fire severity than unlogged areas.

The timber industry is fond of using a 1999 General Accounting Office (GAO) report which found 39 million acres of forestland at high risk of fire as their "silver-bullet" to justify more logging in national forests. While the timber industry quotes such numbers, they fail to mention that -- according to the Forest Service -- 87 percent of that acreage is found within heavily logged and roaded portions of our national forests.

Interestingly enough, the same 1999 GAO report determined "most of the trees that need to be removed to reduce accumulated fuels are small in diameter and have little or no commercial value," thereby raising further questions as to the intentions of the timber industry and their supporters.

Truthfully, the timber industry knows that while Forest Service budgets are tied directly to commercial logging -- not forest stewardship -- the Forest Service will continue its long-standing tradition of cutting down our national forests while simply paying lip service to "forest health."

This fact did not go unnoticed in the GAO report either. The GAO found that when addressing projects designed to reduce the risk of fire, Forest Service managers, "tend to (1) focus on areas with high-value commercial timber rather than on areas with high fire hazards or (2) include more large, commercially valuable trees in a timber sale than are necessary to reduce the accumulated fuels."

Clearly the American people need to decide whether national forests should be managed by sound science, or whether management should continue to be commercially driven and controlled by the timber industry and their congressional allies.

In the meantime, out of respect for the communities and families affected by the wildfires, let's request that the timber industry and their congressional supporters at least wait for the wildfires to pass before they start advancing their political agenda of increased logging and roadbuilding in America's national forests.

Matthew Koehler is with the Native Forest Network Public Lands Project in Missoula. To learn more, visit: www.nativeforest.org.

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