Column: Backward thinking for fire prevention

President Bush is trying to drum up support for his “innovative” forest management policy. The President argues that if we relax regulations on logging companies, there will be a significant drop in forest fires. The president’s proposal is similar to the one made by the fox to the farmer regarding his chicken coop.

President Bush, in his weekly radio address on Aug. 24, said by easing restrictions on logging companies operating in National Forests there would be fewer fires. The president overlooked the fact that the number one cause of forest fires in the United States is not bolts of lightning striking densely packed trees, but rather lightning striking branches which fall, igniting brush on the forest floor.

I visit the Rutgers ancient forest near my home in New Jersey on a regular basis. I also spent a great deal of time wandering the “forests” behind my house. The first time I visited the natural forest I was surprised, there was not the usual conglomeration of weeds and rosebushes threatening to cut up my legs. I have since learned that in natural forests there is no underbrush.

How did underbrush enter our national forests, helping ignite forest fires every year? Beginning in the early 20th century, logging practices were developed that have proven to be reckless. The government instituted “regulations” to make sure that loggers planted trees for those they cut down.

There was nothing in these regulations that stated the companies had to do anything more than place a six-inch seedling in the ground when they were finished. Because these “reseeded” forests were never properly maintained, expanding underbrush, coupled with abnormally dry conditions, has demonstrated how reckless clear cutting, a quick stab in the ground by a departing logger moving onto the next cut, can be.

Now the president proposes we ease existing forest management regulations. The president markets this proposal as “bipartisan” because of the support of some senators, such as the Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle. Bush argues that Daschle has pushed for similar policies to be implemented in his state. Let’s not forget, however, that logging is an important industry in sparsely populated South Dakota, exporting enough lumber every year to construct 30,000 single family homes.

Instead of giving in to special interests, like the president has often done in his short presidency, he should look at the two main causes of forest fires in the United States. One is reckless logging practices, and the second is global warming.

First, the president should look for ways to hold companies more accountable, not less, by making companies responsible for the land, which they log for years to come. National Forests should be managed in a manner that ensures that they grow as ancient, not “modern,” forests. A timber company can grow “modern” forests on their own land – if they own any.

The second cause for forest fires is much more difficult to cure. Our president has already denounced the Kyoto Protocol, the international consensus on global warming. Because of global warming, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has hypothesized that “El Nino” events have become stronger and more frequent, bringing abnormally dry conditions to the areas affected the worst by forest fires.

Clearly the president, a past governor from an oil producing state, as well as a former oil executive, has all the answers when it comes to global warming.

President Bush also seems to have the facts mixed up on his forest fire policy. He thinks increased destruction of our forests and forest ecosystems will result in fewer forest fires. Fewer forests, fewer fires – sounds like “fuzzy math” to me.

The president has a choice – place a very temporary Band-Aid over the problem by catering to oil and timber interests, or get to the root of the problem by addressing global warming and the ravaging of our ancient forests. There is no doubt in my mind which path he will choose.

-The writer is a freshman majoring in international affairs.

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