The front-page article about “natural fires” and the necessity of permanently “thinning out” our forests (“Amid wet weather, crews turn natural fires loose,” July 9) defies common sense.
The U.S. Forest Service, with the media as a cheering section, just burned 1,700 acres east of Pecos and 17,843 acres southwest of Magdalena. The city of Santa Fe has become a partner in a plan to burn 600,000 acres of Northern New Mexico. In Montana, in a project called Southwest Crown of the Continent, a million and a half acres are being systematically thinned and burned. Two “restoration” projects in Colorado together equal over 2 million acres. A single 2 million-acre project, the Four Forests Restoration Initiative, was recently finalized in Arizona. It is so large an area that the Forest Service was forced to set aside at least 8 percent of it as unburned “bridge habitat” so bears and squirrels will not be exterminated from a large part of Arizona.
Elsewhere in the world, this is called deforestation. It is a crime of the highest order in a time when the carbon stored in our forests is critical to the survival of our planet. The forces behind it, not surprisingly, are economic.
The Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, created by Congress in 2009, had a five-year goal of generating 1 billion board feet of timber. That goal has been exceeded. Pioneer Forest Products has been given the contract to “treat” the first million acres of the Arizona project. The “treatments” involve harvesting 300,000 acres of timber and then burning the rest of the forest. The Forest Service brags that 4,360 jobs are being created each year.
The long and the short of it is that both firefighting and prescribed burning have been outsourced to private industry. Two federal laws have greased the flow of money. The Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Act of 2009 makes available federal funds and money from timber sales to conduct prescribed burning on a massive scale. And the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement Act (or FLAME Act) of 2009 makes virtually unlimited federal funds available to fight wildfires — but only if the fires threaten homes or are more than 300 acres in size.
This creates a perverse financial incentive to let some wildfires get out of control before trying to put them out. It also creates an incentive to use isolated lightning strikes as an excuse to do large-scale prescribed burning: So long as they can be called “wildfires” and are more than 300 acres in size, unlimited funds are available, even if there is no accompanying timber sale. This is exactly why the Commissary Fire near Pecos and the Red Canyon Fire near Magdalena were called “wildfires” instead of the prescribed burns they actually were. Socorro County’s newspaper, El Defensor Chieftain, published a close-up photo of the Red Canyon “wildfire” soon after lightning ignited it during a thunderstorm. The fire was 3 feet high and confined to that tree.
Money to burn trees is being paid not only to private industry but to local governments, The Nature Conservancy and local environmental groups. The Nature Conservancy, whose CEO was recruited from Goldman Sachs, and whose business council includes Dow Chemical, Monsanto and Weyerhaeuser, is not the good environmental steward it once was. It is the sponsor of most of the projects that are burning millions of acres of our nation’s forests.
Thinning the forest and opening up the canopy does not prevent wildfires. It lets in sunlight, heat and wind, increasing forest temperature, decreasing forest moisture and ensuring the rapid spread of flames.
Arthur Firstenberg is a resident of Santa Fe and a member of Once A Forest.