Heated fracas over forest fires

The conflicting views of environmentalists, foresters and local citizens are hindering the formulation of a coherent forest policy in the US

Published: Saturday 15 October 1994

-- (Credit: USIS)WITH 28 huge forest fires raging across western United States in August and threatening to reduce 2.025 million ha of forest to cinders by October, national attention is focused on America's native forests. Ecologists and foresters agree that a century of mismanagement has suppressed regular forest burning and transformed these forests into what the us National Commission on Wildlife Disasters terms a "time bomb". Proposals to reverse the damage have, however, got mired in conflicts between environmentalists, foresters and local people.

Although everyone agrees that the forests need thinning to reduce the chances of future conflagrations, consensus breaks down at this point. Logging small trees is one way of minimising destructive fires. Regular, prescribed burning is another. Environmentalists, however, doubt that the foresters can be trusted to log only small trees. Prescribed burning, on the other hand, draws strong protests from the local people. Most foresters and ecologists even agree that both methods should play a role, but bad blood between the groups has led to money being squandered even as the cost of huge firefighting operations soars.

The delays in formulating a forest management strategy have exacted a stiff price. According to Nature (Vol 370, No 6491), 150 helicopters, 40 air tankers and 20,000 firefighters were deployed to fight the fires -- at a whopping cost of US $1 billion.

The irony of the current impasse between the groups is that the solutions to forest fires are easily available. At the Boise National Forest in Idaho, a study of an old sample of fire-resistant ponderosa pine reveals that between 1716 and 1893 it has been scorched every 16 years on an average, but never thereafter. Once, the forest comprised 70 per cent ponderosa pines and only 30 per cent fire-prone Douglas fir trees, with about 250 trees per ha. Today, a typical hectare has more than 1,200 trees, 70 per cent of them being Douglas firs. As a result, the average annual loss by fire has increased from 1,215 ha before 1985 to over 20,250 ha since.

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