A U.S. General Accounting Office study of forest-thinning projects contested by environmental groups sheds new light on the war of words being waged over forest management. The study, as reported by the Tribune's Mark Flatten on Thursday, found that most forest thinning projects go unchallenged.
The Southwest Forest Alliance, Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity immediately issued a joint press release touting that fact. But that wasn't the GAO's only finding, by a long shot.
The study determined that the projects that are unchallenged less often tend to be relatively small controlled burns and thinning of small-diameter trees near populated areas — projects that the environmental groups have said they support. Many of these projects also are exempt from administrative appeals.
Interestingly, though, about half of the projects near urban areas that are not exempt from appeals end up being challenged.
Most telling of the GAO study's findings is that nearly 60 percent of larger thinning projects deeper within forests, many of which involve commercial timber sales, are contested by environmental groups.
The Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity, along with several others that have litigated heavily against projects that involve timber sales, have made it clear since last summer's devastating wildfire season that the only projects they will tolerate are those near populated areas that do not involve logging companies. They have also made it a point to remind us that forest fires are “natural” occurrences, and that forests generally should be left alone.
Fortunately, there is a reasonable, environmentally responsible middle ground between their position of letting the forests burn or letting logging companies clear-cut them. That position has been painstakingly researched and tested by forestry experts, including Wally Covington at Northern Arizona University's School of Forestry.
That middle ground involves active, science-based management of our national forests that balances ecology, safety and economics. Yes, there will always be “natural” forest fires, many sparked by a combination of overgrowth, dry conditions and lightning. And forests in designated wilderness areas should go untouched by humans.
But humans also are part of nature, and expecting all publicly held forests to be off-limits to any kind of human intervention is unnecessary, impractical and — yes — even unnatural. Forests enrich all living things — animals and humans.
As long as we enjoy the aesthetic, recreational and economic benefits of forests without destroying or degrading them, there is no reason for the kind of outcry we have heard for the past decade from radical environmental groups that reject any human intervention as unnatural and destructive.
Finally, there is no way to affordably thin our vast national forests without involvement by the forest industry. There is only so much tax money available to conduct the limited thinning projects that environmental extremists will tolerate.
A reasonable, balanced approach to forest management, as espoused by Covington and contained in the Healthy Forest Restoration Act now before Congress, would substantially reduce wildfire conditions, result in healthier stands of trees in treated areas, provide jobs and economic benefits through forest industries, and save untold tax dollars in non-commercial thinning projects and firefighting.
This is the middle ground that, had it been in place in recent years, almost certainly would have spared Arizona and the West last year's devastating wildfires. It is a middle ground that Gov. Napolitano and our congressional delegates should wholeheartedly support, and it should be adopted by the entire Congress.
We must not allow extremism to deal us and our precious forests another such horrendous blow.