The Healthy Forests initiative signed by President George W. Bush earlier this month contained important protection against forest fires for Southcentral Alaska.
The initiative is aimed at improving forest health and reducing fire hazards on public lands, especially near communities. Though the president's original plan called for selective cutting on public lands in much of the West, environmentalist complaints prompted Congress to limit the areas where remedial work will be allowed.
The final bill also calls for expedited court decisions on the inevitable green appeals attempting to block forest fire fuel reduction projects.
One measure that made it into the final bill was a provision to remove dead trees in this area that were killed by the years-long spruce bark beetle infestation. The Southcentral measure was advanced and shepherded through the legislative process by Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
Such proactive protection is long overdue. The problem of forests choked with explosive fuels was caused by decades of aggressive firefighting in areas where occasional wildfires once kept them thinned and healthy.
Fighting such fires has a very large downside because it results in thick and dry undergrowth that can become extremely dangerous when fires go out of control, as they often do in such areas.
The risk was dramatically demonstrated here in 1996 when the Miller's Reach blaze scorched 37,000 acres and destroyed 400 homes, cabins and other buildings and in California this fall when raging fires took 22 lives, destroyed more than 3,600 homes and scorched 750,000.
Environmentalists argue against cutting trees for fire protection or any other reason. They claim that fuels reduction opens the way for commercial logging. But Murkowski counters that the Healthy Forests Restoration Act will save people from the ''human tragedy associated with wildfires the heartbreak of losing one's home and possessions, the economic losses, and the dangers that wildfires pose to . . . wildland firefighters.''
The risk of disastrous fires in Southcentral Alaska during the spring and summer dry season remains high. Area residents should not have to depend on luck and favorable weather on avoidable risks that could kill people and destroy property. It's time to get on with removing dangerous dead trees and thinning combustible undergrowth that threaten Alaska communities. Doing so will protect the public and improve the health of our forests.
Voice of the (Anchorage) Times
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