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Ensuring Healthy Forests
By Lynn Scarlett Published 10/11/2004

Last Fall, Congress passed the bipartisan Healthy Forests Restoration Act. The Act built upon the foundations of President Bush's Healthy Forests Initiative -- an effort to protect communities and restore forest health by selectively removing overly dense vegetation and tree stands. The Initiative is making a difference.

In just four years, federal agencies have nearly quadrupled the number of acres treated to remove hazardous, excess vegetative fuels from public lands. In 2004, federal agencies set a goal of improving land condition on 3.7 million acres -- a goal the agencies exceeded by removing hazardous fuels from some 4 million acres.

Make no mistake -- these efforts will help protect communities. They will enhance forest and rangeland health. And, as opportunities to use some of this vegetative material -- biomass -- emerge, they will generate economic opportunities. They are not -- as critics contend -- a ploy to expand logging or circumvent rules.

Consider the problem. In 2003, some 3,000 homes burned in Southern California as wildland fires raged across more than 700,000 acres. A year earlier, the entire town of Show Low fled as a catastrophic wildland fire burned nearly a half million acres nearby. Towns in Oregon, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico all have similar tales -- homes lost, forests devastated.

Fires in many ecosystems are natural -- but not these fires. Tree stand densities in some locations are twenty times greater than at the time of pre-European settlement in America. When fires strike in these conditions, flames shoot upward rather than burning through underbrush and lower tree branches. The fires burn with explosive force and at temperatures so high that trees -- and anything else in the wake of the fire -- are virtually incinerated.

Forest fires are burning with atypical intensity -- and more and more folks have moved into communities adjacent to forests. For these communities, the President's Healthy Forests Initiative is making a difference.

In New Mexico, near Pinos Altos north of Silver City, a blaze erupted in early May. Initial suppression efforts had minimal effect on the blaze, which began moving toward several communication towers. But the fire soon reached a "fuel break" -- a 50-acre area thinned of vegetation just months before -- and, as firefighters put it, the "show was over."

In Minnesota, at the White Earth Reservation, a wildland fire ignited and moved along at some 10,000 feet per hour with 15 to 20-feet flames. When the fire reached an area previously treated for fuels reduction, flame lengths dropped to one foot, the rate of speed fell to under 1,000 feet per hour, and firefighters were able to stop the fire, saving threatened buildings.

A fuels treatment project in Florida, at the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, halted the spread of a 4,000-acre wildfire ignited by lightning.

Communities are safer -- and some are reaping economic benefits. Through the Healthy Forests Initiative, some federal agencies can now work with non-profit and private contractors to remove hazardous fuels who, in turn, can use the biomass as fuel or feedstock for new products. In 2004, byproducts were generated from fuels treatments done on some 277,000 acres of Forest Service lands.

The Healthy Forests Initiative -- and the bipartisan Healthy Forests Restoration Act -- have helped put dollars on the ground to restore forests and rangeland health. The Bush Administration has annually asked Congress for (and received) over three times more money to remove hazardous fuels than was requested in 2000. Agencies have removed as much hazardous fuel from the public lands over the last four years as was done in the previous eight years. Much of this new effort is occurring in what agencies call the wildland-urban interface -- areas where homes and other buildings lie within and adjacent to public forests and rangelands.

Some of the success of completing fuels treatment projects results from better policy tools that clear away administrative hurdles to undertaking on-the-ground projects. Forest health requires the ability to thin overly dense underbrush and tree stands, and remove invasive shrubs and trees that heighten fire dangers. The new legislative and administrative tools reduce duplicative paperwork, enabling agencies to perform fuels treatment projects under similar conditions without repeating -- again and again -- duplicative analysis.

Seeing the devastation -- to communities and to forests -- from catastrophic wildland fires, President Bush called for improving the condition of public lands and reducing the risk of wildland fire. A firm foundation is now in place from which federal agencies, states, tribes, local communities and private-sector partners can successfully change conditions on public lands to achieve safer communities and healthier forests.

The author is Assistant Secretary of Policy, Management, and Budget at the Department of the Interior.

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