Just as predicted, the Arizona wildfire season has begun, and prospects for yet another devastating summer are downright frightening. Let's recap what's happened since last summer's Rodeo Chedeski fire tore through Arizona's Rim country: Lots of talk.

Oh yes, and another lawsuit, by some wacko environmental group in New Mexico, to block a modest proposal to salvage some burned trees left by the Rodeo Chedeski fire.

What a disgrace. What a frustrating, needless disgrace.

While Western governors, foresters, timber industry representatives and environmentalists jawboned for three days in Montana this week, the first big blaze of the 2003 season ripped through the community of Summerhaven on Mount Lemon. The forest around the community had been thinned but, as U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl pointed out on Friday, “that has proven sadly inadequate when the crown fire raged in the greater forest and then rushed up the canyon toward the community.”

Kyl has spent the past year advocating large-scale thinning throughout our national forests, but the environmental groups staunchly oppose anything that allows timber companies to profit. Yet tasking the federal government with the immense amount of thinning that's needed to restore our forests to health would be prohibitively expensive.

That is the crux of the political stalemate that now leaves our forests in even worse health than last year. And if it seems nutty to prohibit timber companies from conducting carefully planned and monitored thinning operations because they might make a buck, well, welcome to the netherworld of the Sierra Club and the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity.

These and other extremist groups have stalled sound forest management for the past decade, and we are witnessing the results. If their objective is saving our forests, then why are the forests burning?

Their blizzard of litigation to block timber thinning over the past decade has driven nearly all logging and milling operations from the state. The only place where both forest industries and forests are healthy is the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation, where tribal members — not environmental extremists — control forest management.

To her credit, in her keynote message to the Western Governors Association this week, Gov. Janet Napolitano summed up what must happen: “The days of commerce versus environment in forestry management should be put behind us. In truth, this old grudge match has contributed to more ecological imbalance than any other factor.”

The only question now is whether Congress has the will to break this destructive and tragic stalemate. How much more of our precious forests must be lost before ecological balance — and political sanity — are restored?

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