Sunday, June 24, 2012

Where There's Smoke, There Shouldn't Be Political Profit

Steve Pearce’s effort to turn the Gila forest fire into profit for his pals is one more vivid reminder that he’s an embarrassment to New Mexico.

With the fire still raging, Pearce wrote in these pages that the blame for it belonged on environmentalists ("extreme interest groups") and the Forest Service, and that more logging would prevent or limit future forest fires.

Like most good con jobs, his piece has a grain of truth in it: clearing of smaller growth can help, as can prescribed burns in some circumstances. (And clear-cutting the wilderness would probably stop the forest fires for decades.)

However, his suggestion that commercial logging could solve the problem is pure nonsense. (For one thing, this fire is burning in Wilderness, where no such motorized vehicles and tools would be permitted by law. He must know that. So why should the Congressman berate the Forest Service for not allowing what Congress has forbidden it to allow?)

More generally, what loggers want is not the smaller growth that helps forest fires travel.

They want the larger, commercially marketable timber.

They don’t want to thin forests by taking a tree here and there, or the small stuff.

They want to cut in as concentrated a way as they can, to minimize costs and logistical problems and maximize profits.

The fact is that commercial logging not only doesn’t prevent forest fires, it tends to exacerbate the problem.

The bulk of scientific and expert opinion is that logging is more of a problem than a solution.

Mr. Pearce either knows that (and doesn’t address it because he can’t) or he doesn’t know it. Not knowing it would mean he was stupid (which I doubt) or just didn’t care.

I’m no expert. I read Pearce’s column, had some doubts, and did some research. I talked to some people who’ve actually spent much of their lives fighting forest fires; and I read a substantial amount of material. Sources like the Forest Service, the General Accounting Office, and scientists tend to warn about the dangers of logging. Most nonprofit conservation / environmental groups agree. Logging industry spokesfolk and conservative "free enterprise" think-tanks tend to disagree.

Pearce approaches problems differently. Rather than starting with a question, such as "What’s the evidence of climate change?" or "What’s best for our forests?", and consulting as varied and qualified a set of experts and observers as possible, Pearce seems to start with an answer ( "Facing up to global warming could be bad for business" or "Private enterprise logging forests is better than the government protecting them") and articulates a position his financial backers and political allies will approve. Then, if necessary, his people find whatever industry flack will sit in a witness chair and say whatever absurdity Pearce’s position needs said.

An honest opinion piece for Pearce’s side would at least address the bulk of scientific and historical evidence on the other side, and try to explain why it’s all wrong. Maybe it is. But "because I say so" isn’t strong evidence.

An honest look at the forest-fire issue would also have to recognize that some major causes of the problem are things Pearce likes or doesn’t believe in.

A couple of experts told me that the kind of fire we’re seeing more and more often "used to be the 10% case, the perfect fire storm when all bets are off." Now those rare conditions – very low humidity, high winds, combined with high temperature -- are the new normal. Under these conditions, fires burn hotter, and do deeper harm to the earth from which we hope trees will grow again.

"Basically what’s doing this is drought and climate," said Bryan Bird, a biologist with Wild Earth Guardians. "None of the types of fire treatments we can undertake will consistently have an effect in the new world of climate change."

Bird also noted that while "Pearce screams and yells," environmentalists, loggers, Forest Service officials, and others are "on the ground trying to find the answers, and he’s not there."

Looking into the forest fire issue, I came away with the view that dealing with this problem is more complicated than either Steve Pearce or I might like. I can’t offer some panacea here, although certain steps make sense.

We should cut or burn more undergrowth, at least in some public lands other than wilderness. That’s not something logging companies want to do. Nor could they legally do so, in areas where motorized vehicles and machinery are prohibited. (It’s also tough in a time of diminishing budgets.)

However, doing more of this also impairs the naturalness of land and interferes with wild-life. Decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis. We should protect homes; but someone building in or adjacent to public lands ought not to assume that the public will disturb those lands to accommodate the new home or business.

One suggestion I heard is to revive something like the Civilian Conservation Corps. We have a major problem with unemployment. We have something that needs doing. Maybe we could pay people to spend some time in the woods clearing undergrowth. Yeah, it’d be an expense; but it might save more in fire-fighting costs than we’d spend on this sort of prevention. The military-style attack we all see on TV is often fruitless – and always extremely costly. (On the other hand, it may be an old man’s assumption that today’s youth would leave computer games and social networking behind to make some money working in the woods for awhile.)

I don’t know the answers; but unlike Steve Pearce, I don’t pretend to.

[The foregoing column appeared today, Sunday, 23 June in the Las Cruces Sun-News.]

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