What a hopeful and collegial photo-op it made: There they were, the governors of Colorado and Arizona, Bill Owens and Janet Napolitano, a Republican and a Democrat, signing a pact creating the Southwest Ecological Restoration Institutes. It happened earlier this month at a meeting of the Western Governors Association in Breckenridge, Colo.
The think tank, funded with $15 million in federal money, will do research aimed at addressing the forest health crisis and combating the wildfire threat. “We know firsthand what happens when our forests are overgrown and neglected,” Napolitano said. “This is an important step toward smart, effective forest management and fire prevention.”
If only it were that simple.
The institute, which will be split among Northern Arizona University, Colorado State University and New Mexico Highlands University, is nothing more than pork — one of the goodies doled out by backers of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act to buy congressional support for the measure. And we’d get more practical use in fighting wildfires from a rain barrel than a pork barrel.
This issue has been studied to death. There’s no mystery to what caused the forest health crisis and what’s required to reverse it. What’s needed right now is action, not thumb-sucking — and a cease-fire in the forest policy wars that helped contribute to the crisis.
On the same day Owens and Napolitano were gripping and grinning, a wire report out of Arizona was painting a less optimistic picture. “A decision to thin 22,000 acres of ponderosa pine forest in (Northern Arizona’s) Kaibab National Forest has been overturned by regional forest officials, who questioned potential soil erosion and how the thinning would affect the view from the highway,” according to the report. “The Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and Southwest Forest Alliance applauded the reversal, saying it would protect old-growth trees in the Jacob Lake area.”
“Our interest up there is thinning and reducing fuels. Several trees per acre is all we’re talking about in those larger size classes,” Kaibab Forest Supervisor Mike Williams said, defending his restoration plan. “But environmentalists have argued the Forest Service should not allow the cutting of any larger-diameter trees — an incentive offered to logging companies to make the thinning projects more appealing,” according to the report, and so they cheered the delay even as another fire season approaches.
It’s a carbon copy of news stories we’ve often read over the years, but were sure we’d see less of after the wildfire threat blew up in the nation’s face four summers ago, underscoring the need to more actively manage unhealthy forests. Congress acted by ordering more thinning and restoration work. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth pleaded for help in reducing the regulatory red tape that had led to “analysis paralysis” at the agency. Average Americans became better educated about the dangers involved in the mismanagement or non-management of public lands, including a century of short-sighted fire suppression policies. The country seemed determined to act in response to the crisis.
But as the news item shows, little has changed in the agenda, rhetoric or tactics of eco-obstructionists, who continue to oppose virtually any forest work involving the harvesting of larger trees. The fixation on larger-diameter trees has less to do with preserving “old growth” forests than stated, because relatively young trees can achieve significant diameters, and very old ones can be spindly poles, depending on forest conditions. It instead stems from the groups’ burning desire to kill off what’s left of the U.S. timber industry and ensure that no one makes a profit on the public lands. Peek beneath the veneer and capitalism is often the environmentalists’ actual target.
Unless the Southwest Ecological Restoration Institutes can do something about liberating these groups from their retrograde ruts, or clearing away more of the regulatory obstacles that slow or halt the national response to the forest health crisis, we’re not sure they will do much good.