Cleaning Up Our Forests

07/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

The cleanup of the Bush administration's phenomenal mismanagement of the nation's forests continues to grind forward in federal courts. Thus far the Obama administration has not yet put in place new leadership for the Forest Service -- one potential nominee had a lobbying background and one withdrew for personal reasons. The biggest forest-management policy issue -- the Roadless Areas -- is being managed in the short-term by Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack himself. But at the finer-grained level, it's still the lawsuits filed against Bush that are, effectively, driving forest policy.

The most recent ruling was in Los Angeles. In 2005 the Forest Service revised the Forest Plans for the Cleveland, Los Padres and San Bernardino National Forests. As was its habit under Bush, the Service didn't include any management requirements to protect endangered species. The Center for Biological Diversity sued, and Judge Marilyn Hall Patel agreed that Forest Plans require Endangered Species Act protections.

But there's a lot left to do. A new study confirmed -- as the Sierra Club and I have argued for years -- that while climate change and years of forest-fire suppression and over-cutting of big trees have substantially increased the risk of wildfire to homes and communities, the Forest Service has diverted almost all of the money appropriated to minimize these risks for the benefit of the timber industry. A University of Colorado analysis of 44,613 "fuel-reduction projects" found that only three percent of them occurred in urban-wildland interfaces or the buffer strip around them. By contrast, Congress insisted that at least 50 percent of the money be devoted to community protection -- and the Sierra Club advocates spending 100 percent for five years to get rid of the worst of the backlog.

One major factor, the study's authors found, was that a majority of the most critical urban-wildland community-protection zones -- 71 percent -- are on private lands, and only 17 percent are under direct Forest Service jurisdiction. "Our results suggest the need for a significant shift in fire policy emphasis from federal to private lands, if protection of communities and private property in the wildland-urban interface remains a primary goal," the authors wrote.

The bottom line: We've spent $2 billion since 2000 without reducing the number of acres burned, homes destroyed, or firefighters killed. President Obama's new forest chief is badly needed.