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Healthy Forest Initiative fails to put federal dollars where they would do most good

Communities need fire protection

Posted: Friday, October 24, 2003

Winter may be setting in across the nation, but Western lawmakers are firing away with the Bush administration in promoting bad fire legislation that lacks serious protections for communities including those around the Chugach National Forest.

On the one hand we have sound Forest Service science and universal agreement that making homes firewise and creating defensible space around communities will dramatically improve homeowner safety. Yet, the Bush administration and U.S. Rep. Don Young and pals, willing to sacrifice community protection if it means increasing commercial logging and eroding environmental safeguards and citizen participation, have chosen another course.

Case in point is Bush's "Healthy Forest Initiative," or HR 1904, spearheaded by Rep. McInnis of Colorado, and former timber lobbyist and current Undersecretary of Natural Resources and the Environment Mark Rey. HR 1904 doesn't focus scarce federal funding and resources where they would do the most good: in the community protection zone, about 500 meters around communities.

Instead, it will continue to allow the Forest Service and Department of Interior to conduct misguided logging projects deep in the backcountry in the name of "fuel reduction." Places like Resurrection Pass, Primrose Trail, the Snow River and other popular fishing, hunting and hiking areas.

Instead of aiding fire-threatened and cash-starved communities on the Kenai Peninsula, HR 1904 would provide more money to timber companies to log in the more profit-bearing areas away from communities at risk.

No community should be left at risk because the Forest Service has chosen to divert funds and personnel away from projects to secure community protection zones and left workers in lower-priority backcountry areas. There is a better way to help communities reduce the risk of forest fires.

The Firewise program (www.firewise.org) is an excellent resource for homeowners living in forested areas. The idea of focusing Forest Service resources and personnel near homes and communities is based on research by the agency's own Fire Lab scientists.

They say that a home's ability to survive a wildfire can be increased by more than 90 percent by simply installing a non-flammable roof, removing combustible materials such as wood piles and propane tanks and reducing vegetation within the home ignition zone (the area directly adjacent to the home).

These measures help save homes and lives and can be replicated on a larger scale to help protect communities. One solution would be block grants to provide funds for fuel reduction on private, state and tribal lands, which comprise 85 percent of the forested land near vulnerable communities, as well as on federal lands.

This approach would put the limited available funds to use where they are most effective: at the sites where forest fires pose a real threat to human lives and homes.

The so-called "Healthy Forests Initiative," has been the mold for legislation that does not prioritize projects that would create a crucial defensible space around western communities. Instead it calls for logging 20 million acres of federal lands, often far from any community, and provides virtually no funding for fuel reduction on non-federal lands.

What scant funds HR 1904 provides to local communities are buried within new programs in the bill that are not dedicated to protecting communities from wildfire. We need backcountry areas on the Chugach protected for hiking, hunting fishing, recreation and tourism not clearcut for the benefit of a few timber companies under the guise of community protection.

With thousands of communities at risk from forest fires, the common-sense approach is to do the most important work first. In doing so, you get buy-in from all parties, provide communities protection and get the biggest bang for the buck.

We know that the Forest Service has limited resources, and that the best way to reduce the risks of fires to homes and lives is to focus on forest areas immediately around communities. The Forest Service has the resources to start protecting communities now. Why does the Bush administration and its allies in Congress continue to push for more logging instead?

It is time to start asking that question and to start demanding real solutions.

Betsy Goll is a lifelong Alaskan and regional organizer for the Sierra Club.



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