WOODLAND PARK, Colo. -- As a U.S. Forest Service official briefed homeowners about a wildfire threatening hundreds of homes, a woman yelled from the bleachers:
"Don't tell me not to build a home in the mountains! I don't want to hear that."
A Forest Service employee was heard to mutter: "Then don't ask us to put the fires out."
That little drama touches on a longtime debate about forest management:
Forests need some fire and thinning to stay healthy or they become diseased and clogged with underbrush that fuels uncontrollable wildfires. But tree-loving homeowners don't want any trees cut or burned -- at least not close by.
How can the Forest Service keep the woods healthy and the homeowners happy?
The conflict cries out for resolution now that hundreds of thousands of people live in mountain homes at a time when voracious wildfires roar across the West.
The Forest Service is appealing to Congress, asking for measures that will speed up the approval of prescribed burns and tree-thinning and make it harder to appeal them.
"We need to close some of the loopholes so that not just anybody can stop projects or delay them so long that the price becomes too high," said Sonny LaSalle, who supervised national forests in Oregon and Colorado before retiring.
It is not unusual for a project to take several years to get through the review process. It took five years to approve a new management plan for the White River National Forest, 50 miles west of Denver. The final version abandoned a more aggressive approach to reducing fuel dangers.
Nearly half of projects designed to reduce fire risks in national forests since 2001 were stalled by appeals, usually by environmentalists seeking to stop logging, a Forest Service report released July 9 said.
Arizona suffered its worst wildfire in state history in a region where residents, environmentalists and the state environmental quality department fought off tree-thinning and prescribed burns.
Whether those actions contributed to the out-of-control Rodeo-Chidiski fire is unclear. But the Forest Service is preparing an analysis to try to get some answers. The wildfire destroyed 467 homes and nearly 470,000 acres.
Nationwide, with the Western drought figuring into the equation, 3.1 million acres of forests and grasslands have burned since January.
The wildfire rate this year is nearly three times that of the first half of 2001, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
The difficulties of forest management seem especially acute during such a disastrous season. But the issue of how best to manage American forests is an old one.
Fires occur naturally, and for thousands of years, Indians set fires to open transportation corridors, improve hunting and reduce the risk of wildfires burning out of control.
In 1910, Sunset Magazine published an article recommending that in the West the fledgling Forest Service use the Indian "cool fire" method of setting blazes in the spring and fall to clear out overgrowth and dead trees.
That same year, the "Big Burn" in Idaho and Montana left 85 people dead and 3 million acres blackened. The Forest Service vowed to put out every fire by 10 a.m. the day after it started.
After all, when Theodore Roosevelt launched the agency in 1905, its primary mission was to protect timber from logging companies as they raced to meet the demand for wood to build new homes across America.
But in later years, the agency and timber industry developed a close relationship. Companies had a virtual free rein in the forests, and wood-related commerce -- timber, plywood, pulp and paper -- supported many small Western communities.
Over time, however, environmental concerns mounted over clear-cutting, water quality and wildlife habitat. Meanwhile, the beauty of the West beckoned people from the cities, too.
During the last 40 years, hundreds of thousands of Americans moved closer to wilderness, and tourism and recreation supplanted logging as the forests' chief income producer.
Besides keeping homeowners happy, the Forest Service is under pressure from many competing interests.
Backpackers want trails closed to all-terrain vehicles. Snowmobilers and ATV users want the same access as cross-country skiers. Ski resorts want to expand into areas that environmentalists want protected as wildlife habitat.
"King Solomon couldn't solve this one. They would still be fighting over who gets the baby and the baby would be dead," said Lynn Jungwirth, executive director of a California nonprofit organization offering workshops on forest health and restoration.
The Forest Service is responsible for 191 million acres in 44 states and when fires break out, it is also held responsible for protecting thousands of homes on adjacent private land. The new communities expect the Forest Service to come to their aid when wildfires overwhelm their fire departments, often volunteer units.
The original policy to extinguish wildfires was extended to these residential margins, even as fuel loads in the woods increased to the point that in dry years almost any spark would result in a conflagration.
Over the past decade, foresters have begun letting some fires take their natural course, along with thinning the forests by selectively cutting smaller trees.
In the last two years alone, the government has spent $796 million to reduce hazardous fuel levels on federal land.
How effective the measures have been is open to debate, and prescribed burning remains controversial. In some areas where burning and trimming was done, wildfires were slowed. In others, the fires were so big they burned right through.
Memories linger of the National Park Service's burn two years ago in New Mexico when high winds whipped the fire out of control. It destroyed more than 350 homes and damaged 115 buildings at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, home to top-secret defense research.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency paid $245 million to more than 15,500 claimants in Los Alamos. Many families still have not rebuilt their homes. The national park superintendent who approved the burn resigned and published an apology.
But the Forest Service also argues that fire alone isn't enough to solve the problem; the agency wants logging expanded into areas where it is banned.
Logging has declined dramatically under pressure from conservationists, with 70 percent less wood removed from national forests in 1999 than in 1987. That, too, has increased forest overgrowth, foresters say.
Other experts might not embrace old-school logging as a solution, but they acknowledge the job is too big for controlled burning alone.
Stephen Pyne, an Arizona State University environmental historian, compared reintroducing fire alone into the landscape with trying to bring back an extinct species.
"Fire won't solve all the problems," he said. "It is not an ecological pixie dust that you can sprinkle over a forest and the threat is gone. That would be like dropping wolves into a Denver mall."
Pyne, the author of several books on fire and environmental history, said burns aren't safe in many areas until considerable brush has been removed.
Mainstream environmental groups do not oppose thinning in some spots near urban areas, but they argue that wildfire fears should not be used as an excuse to return to large-scale logging that wipes out healthy, mature trees. They argue that those methods do little to reduce the danger, while leaving the forests a wreck that will burn anyway.
Even if thinning projects are approved, it may not be possible to find a logging company to do them. Many mills have closed, and many of the projects would not pay for themselves. Logging companies would have to be paid to remove small trees.
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