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Expect fire of words once flames die down

The Oregonian
August 15, 2002

Op-Ed re Fire (Beschta Report)

By Robert L. Beschta and J. Boone Kauffman

After the smoke from wildfires fade, expect a rekindling of controversy. Wildfires are a major concern across the American West, and this summer's blazes demonstrate that these worries are well founded. In many areas, decades of fire suppression and logging have resulted in unnaturally high accumulations of fuels resulting in unnaturally severe fires. The controversy will not end as the smoke fades.

Another environmental issue of major importance is how to treat the burned areas after the fires are out. Salvage logging and the seeding of exotic grasses after fire used to be standard practice. Yet it is remarkable how often land-management activities such as this are based upon very little science. Many scientists and land managers have expressed concern that salvage logging and grass seeding have more negative consequences than positive merits. To address concerns about post-fire salvage logging on federal lands, a team of eight university and government scientists prepared a report in March 1995.

Referred to as the Beschta Report, after its lead author, the document provided recommendations for ecologically sound post-fire salvage operations. The report was produced in an attempt to integrate and synthesize the scientific knowledge regarding the environmental effects of post-fire salvage logging and other fuel treatments. When the report was produced, the Forest Service was under intense pressure to circumvent normal environmental considerations and accelerate the harvest of timber from federal lands. Evidently, these pressures continue today.

In June, before a U.S. House subcommittee, Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth focused on the inability of the Forest Service to implement land-use actions on public lands. Interestingly, he identified the Beschta Report as an example of a document that is creating "agency paralysis."

Bosworth expressed frustration that the Forest Service had been taken to court in recent years (and lost) because its post-fire salvage logging plans were contrary to the scientific recommendations for ecologically sound management actions outlined in the Beschta Report. More recently ("Collaborating for healthy national forests," Aug. 6) the Forest Service's deputy chief of research and development, Robert Lewis Jr., attempted to dismiss the scientific credibility of the report.

So what is in this report that has seemingly so disturbed the Forest Service? The report is simply a reiteration of increasingly accepted forest management and ecological principles. For example, the report emphasized that fires are an inherent component of Western forest ecosystems to which native plant and animal species are well adapted. It also provides several conclusions and recommendations that are not supportive of an aggressive post-fire salvage-logging program. These include, for example, not accelerating soil erosion or damage during restoration; prohibiting salvage logging in sensitive areas, such as steep slopes or roadless areas; banning new roads in burned areas and reseeding only where absolutely necessary, and then only with native species.

In other cases the report acknowledges that in addition to forests, other ecosystems of the West, such as rangelands and riparian/stream ecosystems, are under severe stress due to widespread and persistent human activities.

In his letter, Lewis indicated that Forest Service decisions should be made with the best available science, followed by monitoring and adapting when necessary. We strongly agree and suggest that the managers of public lands use the best available science to develop prescriptions for post-fire land use.

We find it difficult to understand why the 1995 report has created such a difficult situation for the agency and why the agency has decided now is the time to discredit the scientific merits of the report.

During the intervening seven years, the Forest Service has had ample opportunity to contact the authors of the report and other experts in the field of fire ecology and management in an attempt to seek clarification or resolve any differences. We're positive they would have been more than interested in a collaborative approach to better define our collective understanding of the science associated with post-fire salvage on the public's lands.

However, except for the recent remarks by agency leaders seeking to denigrate the scientific credibility of the 1995 report, their silence has been deafening.

(Robert L. Beschta is a retired professor of forest hydrology and J. Boone Kauffman is a professor of fire and riparian ecology at Oregon State University. Beschta was the lead author of the Beschta Report; Kauffman was the editor. )

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