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For the week of December 13 through 19, 2000

Locals rebut fire conference sentiments

‘You couldn’t see the truth through it’

"There was so much rhetoric in here. It was like a smoke column off one of the fires. You couldn’t see the truth through it."

Ed Cannady, Sawtooth National Recreation Area public information officer

Express Staff Writer

The U.S. Forest Service was the whipping boy of choice Thursday at a wildfire conference in Boise.

According to most conference panelists—politicians, activists and fire researchers—improper public lands management policies contributed to last summer’s wildfire extravaganza. The fires swept across the West in the face of hot, dry weather and a fuel load that had been building for 100 years.

The ecosystem management approach to forest management, which has driven Forest Service policy for the past 10 years, doesn’t work, critics charged.

Local Forest Service representatives and a local conservationist who attended the conference, however, said a lot of what they heard was incorrect.

"There was so much rhetoric in here," Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA) public information officer Ed Cannady said. "It was like a smoke column off one of the fires. You couldn’t see the truth through it."

The one-day conference, titled The Fires Next Time, was sponsored by the Andrus Center for Public Policy and The Idaho Statesman. It was held at the Boise State University (BSU) campus.

Robert Nelson, University of Maryland professor of environmental policy, was among the most critical speakers.

"The Forest Service has been experiencing problems with land use planning for over 10 years," he said. "It’s dysfunctional. My proposal is to abolish the Forest Service. I think the agency has outlived its usefulness."

Decentralization of the agency and more decision-making power for states and cities would result in better land management, he said, noting that abolition of the Forest Service probably isn’t realistic in the near future.

"We’d better do better if we don’t want [the fires] to happen again in two or three years," he said.

Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne was also critical.

"I don’t think anybody doubts that the current forest policy is not working," he said. "That policy went up in smoke."

Cannady said he was dismayed by such comments, because words like emergency, catastrophic and devastating were threaded throughout speakers’ talks.

"I don’t like the word catastrophic," he said. "It paints fire as a bad thing. That’s not the way this debate needs to be framed."

Cannady contended that more time needs to elapse since the fires occurred to have an objective public dialogue.

"If you don’t learn the lessons of history, you’re going to repeat them," he said. "We’re going to overreact again."

Cannady said large fires of the past prompted overly aggressive fire suppression efforts, contributing to the current heavy fuel loads.

Policy makers discussed three primary methods of preventing another big fire year, all dealing with reducing fuel loads before fires begin: prescribed burns, commercial logging and thinning of smaller timber.

"All three of these are tools that must be utilized," Kempthorne said.

Many of the speakers at Thursday’s conference also discussed the $1.6 billion Congress has allocated to the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service over the next year to improve forest health and resistance to fires.

Deb CooperSNRA area ranger Deb Cooper said after the conference that the funds are putting a lot of political pressure on the agency to accomplish what might not be possible in a short time frame.

"We’re entrusted with $1.2 billion to $1.4 billion to do the impossible with a ‘You’d better not screw up’ sentiment behind it," she said. "The bottom line is, no matter how many acres we treat, those acres will be a tiny percentage of one large wildfire.

"All we can do are relatively tiny projects."

In short, she said, the Forest Service is being set up to fail.

Speaking at the conference via satellite from Washington, D.C., Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said he hopes the funding will be ongoing.

"Funding forest management doesn’t just call for a one-time appropriation," he said. "Increased funding needs to occur steadily. It’s taken 100 years for the current fuel load to build up, and it won’t take one year to solve the problem.

"It’s imperative Congress sees a difference in how our public lands are managed so it will continue to fund fire prevention. This money needs to be utilized on the ground and not eaten up by Washington, D.C., bureaucrats."

In response to questions about the conference, Linn Kincannon, Ketchum rresident and central Idaho director of the Idaho Conservation League, said it was "a hard job to be there."

"I felt discouraged, because there were so many politicians saying logging is the answer to any problem they identify in the forest," she said. "For any forest problem, it’s always log. It’s the whole idea that logging and local control are what’s needed to take care of our forests."

Kincannon said there is no evidence to support logging as a healthy and effective means of fire prevention.

Kincannon also expressed skepticism about the motives behind Kempthorne’s three-fold plan toward preventing future fires.

"His record doesn’t show that he wants to take care of and conserve forests. His record shows he likes logging," she said. "If you want to log, logging always looks like the best solution."


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