Forestry professor agrees with Bush plan to thin trees

August 29, 2002|by RICHARD BELISLE

MONT ALTO, Pa. - A Penn State Mont Alto forestry teacher has joined congressional Republicans whose districts include national forests in embracing President Bush's plan to prevent fires by thinning the trees.

Environmental groups oppose the plan on grounds that it will go beyond reducing the forest fire danger and pave the way for timber companies to take out only the more valuable larger trees.

"It's a hot topic right now," said Peter Linehan, 45, an assistant forestry professor at the Mont Alto campus.

More than 6 million acres of trees have burned in national forest lands in Oregon, Colorado, California and Arizona so far this year. Some fires are still raging.


"Those are the hardest-hit states," Linehan said. "Conditions are very dry. The high level of fuel on the ground coupled with the drought that has dried out the trees creates very inflammable conditions."

The fuel comes from vegetation that grows every year on the forest floor then dies out only to be covered by the following year's crop.

Fire is nature's way of keeping the fuel down and regenerating forests, Linehan said. "Some species like ponderosa pine and northern red oak need fire to regenerate," he said.

Forest fires also release nutrients into the soil and create openings for young trees to grow, he said.

Bush's proposal has bumped up against existing forest management polices and some politics, Linehan said.

Laws were passed governing the management of national forests in the late 1970s and following the fires in Yellowstone National Park in 1988 that create obstacles to proper forest management, he said.

The president, Linehan said, wants to speed up the review process to allow national forest managers to set prescribed or control burns in dangerous forests, allow commercial ventures to cut trees or have them cut by national forest personnel to reduce the risk of major fires.

The laws also allow public comment, subject the government to lawsuits by environmental groups and require forest managers to follow long and involved procedures including getting environmental impact statements, he said.

"It can take a year or more to get approval now," Linehan said. "It's a long administrative process and sometimes it comes too late to save a forest."

Environmentalists accept the idea of thinning, said Wendell Wood of the Oregon Natural Resources Council. They just want to make sure it is done where it does the most good and does not become an excuse to cut old growth timber.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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