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How Environmental Groups Cause Forest Fires

September 1, 2002
By Holly L. Fretwell

It was another hot and dry summer out west, and destructive fires again leaped across vast stretches of our national forests. Debate over the cause of fires heated up, too.


It was another hot and dry summer out west, and destructive fires again leaped across vast stretches of our national forests.

Debate over the cause of fires heated up, too. Environmental advocacy groups blame too many people in the woods and poor logging practices in the past. Foresters blame environmental groups for holding up forest thinning through lengthy appeals.

In fact, no single factor caused the fires, but experts on all sides of the issue recognize that thinning of overly dense forests and prescribed burns are necessary solutions. That is what President George W. Bush proposed late in the summer, on location near the Biscuit blaze in southern Oregon.

Unfortunately, although they say they agree thinning is needed, many environmental organizations continue their opposition to any kind of logging, including thinning, as they have for years. Their appeals have played a deadly role in the buildup of fuel—and continue to do so.

GAO Report: No Bombshell There

This summer, the intensity of the fires led to criticism of environmentalists for their resistance to logging. But then the Center for Biological Diversity dropped a bombshell, reporting the General Accounting Office had exonerated environmentalists from responsibility. The GAO found that fewer than 1 percent of “hazardous fuels reductions projects” undertaken in 2001—only 20 of 1,671 total projects—had been slowed by appeals.

This looked like vindication for environmental activists. Numerous environmental organizations—among them the Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and Wilderness Society—flaunted the 1 percent figure. Newspapers quoted it as well.

What the environmental groups failed to mention was that each of the 1,671 projects reviewed by the GAO had been through the process of environmental assessment and appeals before the GAO began its examination. These were projects already approved, ready to go, and waiting for funding. One would expect none, or at least very few, of those projects to be appealed at that point—many may have been appealed already.

The GAO did not consider whether the projects had faced earlier litigation. The report explicitly states it examined projects “for which the Forest Service had completed the necessary environmental analyses.” The report’s author agreed the numbers were being misrepresented by the environmentalists. In fact, when the Forest Service examined all “mechanical treatments of hazardous fuels,” it found a hefty 48 percent had been appealed over the past 18 months.

A Delay Tactic Only

Environmental organizations justify their appeals on the grounds that the Forest Service, egged on by business interests, is using thinning projects as a subterfuge for logging. Claiming to favor “thinning,” the environmentalists argue the Forest Service is pushing through “logging” instead.

This is nonsense.

Thinning is logging; the issue is how big are the trees that are cut down. Should trees no more than 12 inches in diameter be cut down, or should logging include trees with a diameter of 24 inches? Environmentalists often seem to oppose any thinning that might earn money for the Forest Service—that they call logging!

Many environmental groups are using the appeals process to delay actions that would reduce fuel buildup. Time and again, the Sierra Club and Southwest Forest Alliance appealed an Arizona project that is desperately needed and supported by a consortium of federal, state, and local organizations. The Grand Canyon Forest Partnership, based in Flagstaff, Arizona, would cut only trees up to 16 inches in diameter. Sixty to 80 trees per acre would be left after thinning. But four years after the plan was developed, the area surrounding Flagstaff remains a tinderbox.

Similarly, a salvage sale to remove Engelman spruce killed by beetle infestation was held up in the Manti-la Sal National Forest in Utah in April. Also this year, ecosystem restoration was appealed on the Oachita National Forest in Arkansas.

Even Members of Congress have recognized that the environmentalists’ appeals worsen wildfire risk. Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota) quietly slipped in a legislative rider that would exempt some logging in the Black Hills National Forest, located in his home state, from environmental regulations, appeals, and litigation. Other Western congressmen are attempting the same.

This congressional micro-management is a sign the Forest Service is dysfunctional. To restore proper forest management, Forest Service officials must have the freedom to act responsibly. This will never happen, however, until environmental groups change their actions ... not just their rhetoric.

Holly L. Fretwell is a research associate of PERC--the Center for Free Market Environmentalism in Bozeman, Montana.

For more information

Incentives, not fuels, are endangering forests. A look at the 2002 wildfire season suggests the billions of dollars Congress is spending on fire are mostly wasted ... and worse, this spending may have serious unintended consequences for the future of forest ecosystems. (Environment & Climate News, September 2002.)

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