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Benefits of Burning Unproven

SANTA FE, N.M. — The Forest Service has burned 35,000 acres in New Mexico so far this year. They plan to burn 2,900 acres, in the Santa Fe watershed, in the wilderness, soon, using toxic ignition chemicals dropped from helicopters.

In 2007 a senior fellow at the CATO Institute, Randal O’Toole, who is also a forest economist with over 30 years of experience studying national forest issues, wrote “The Perfect Firestorm, Bringing Forest Service Wildfire Costs under Control,” in the Policy Analysis journal. He surveys many research documents, articles and memos, many from the Forest Service itself. Shockingly, most of these documents criticize the Forest Service policy of prescribed burning, including in our New Mexico forests.

O’Toole says, “All of this research, some of it done by Forest Service scientists, indicates that Forest Service leaders have greatly exaggerated the excess-fuels problem … deftly persuading Congress to increase funding for hazardous fuel reduction in national forests from less that $8 million in 1992 to nearly $300 million in 2007.” Much of this money is spent treating hazardous fuels, a policy as questionable as the Forest Service’s earlier fire exclusion programs. “Treating hazardous fuels” means “prescribed burns.”

According to O’Toole, “Forest Service plans are based on the notion that western national forests suffer from an unnatural accumulation of hazardous fuels. In fact, that is probably true for no more than about 15 percent of those forests.”

O’Toole says, “The real purpose behind both the fire-exclusion promise and the fuel-reduction promise was budget maximization.” And, “everyone from top fire commanders to rookie firefighters knows that funds for firefighting are virtually unlimited.” Further, “the Forest Service distorts its own research and other scientific information about fire ecology to justify huge budgets for hazardous fuels reduction and fire suppression.”

Scientists at the Western Forest Fire Research Center and at the Southwest Community Forestry Research Center agree that the benefits of prescribed burning are unproven. Kevin McKelvey, at the Centers for Water and Wildland Resources, found that forests that have burned once are more, not less, likely to burn again. Scientists at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and at the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research in Tucson, have found that forest fires correlate with drought, not fuels.

Jack Cohen, a Forest Service researcher, says that there are more effective solutions to the fire problem. He states that the best treatment is to ensure that structures in the wildland-urban interface have nonflammable roofs and that thick vegetation and woody debris are cleared from about 130 feet around the buildings.

The forest gives us oxygen. Burning forests in New Mexico releases DDE, DDT, and mercury. One fourth of global warming is from deforestation.

Soon the Forest Service will come forward with its Environmental Assessment on the project for “forest improvement” in the Santa Fe watershed. They should do the more thorough version, a full environmental impact study.

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