root - Posted on 20 September 2005

PNN investigates the arson of millions of acres of US forests for corporate and/or political gain

by DEE and Joshua McVeigh-Schultz/PNN

In October of 2003, wildfires raged across Southern California. Nearly 800,000 acres were destroyed causing upwards of $2 billion in damage. As winter approached, things seemed to be reaching apocalyptic proportions. Things got so bad in San Diego County that rats were eating cars.

That’s right. In February rats were running rampant through Rancho Bernardo—a community that lay just beyond the raging flames of the Cedar fire. The Union-Tribune reported that residents were complaining of rodents invading their homes and vehicles. Faith Halterman reported $1,500 in damage to her Honda Civic.

"It sounds comical, but it’s not, really. We were astonished at how much damage they could do," Halterman said.

No, nothing was comical about those rats in Rancho Bernardo, and nothing was comical about the devastation of Scripps Ranch some five miles away where hundreds of houses burned last October.

And nothing was comical about the 3,000-plus houses that were destroyed as the wildfires raged across five counties. A total of 20 people lost their lives and more than 100,000 people were displaced from their houses. Humans and animals alike were forced to relocate as their homes ignited.

One can hardly blame the rats for trying to escape incineration. But then… who is to blame for all that destruction?

Not Gray Davis, who begged Bush to declare a federal emergency in the dying forests of Southern California six months before the fires started. According to indymedia’s Mike Davis, "the diseased dead trees of the San Bernardinos have virtually no commercial value, and no wood products corporation was interested in removing them." So the White House delayed allocating any fuels reduction money where it was actually needed, because, according to M. Davis: "in reality it only wants to provide reactionary and politically powerful lumber companies with access to old-growth forests and millions of healthy trees"—trees which are few and far between in the Southern Californian landscape.

George Bush likes to blame the Southern California wildfires on environmentalists. According to Lisa Dix of the American Lands Alliance, republicans "blamed the fires on environmental appeals and litigation, which they claimed had caused ‘analysis paralysis.’ The corporate media fed public and political hysteria by showing dramatic footage of burning homes and calling for something to be done."

However, Dix explains that "in reality, no fuels reduction projects in southern California’s national forests had been held up by environmental appeals or litigation in the past three years. Fuel reduction projects had only been the subject of one administrative appeal in the last six years."

But the wildfires became an extremely useful political weapon for Republicans who wanted to rid themselves of those pesky environmentalists. On December 4th, 2003, President Bush signed the "Healthy Forest Restoration Act." He spoke after the ceremony, joined by firefighters who fought the Southern California blazes. Railing against "misguided forest policy," Bush argued that "a lot of people have been well intentioned. They saved the trees. But they lost the forest. We want to save the forest."

According to CNN "For three years, a deadlock in the Senate had prevented the passage of legislation [similar to the Healthy Forest Initiative]. But 15 raging fires driven by Santa Ana winds through Southern California prompted Democrats to compromise on the bill."

Perhaps the more useful question, then, is not "who is to blame?"… but rather, who has benefited?

In retrospect, last years wildfires triggered a breakthrough for Republicans trying to pass the Healthy Forest Initiative.

The Healthy Forest Initiative (HFI) was the first major stand-alone forest management legislation passed by congress since 1976. But it passed only after a heated and controversial debate with environmentalists staunchly opposed to its language.

According to Lisa Dix of the American Lands Alliance, "The Bush logging law undermines the bedrock environmental laws and changes the standards in which the federal judiciary reviews logging cases, tilting the balance to favor timber interests."

Dix argues that the new law is really a huge gift to the timber industry:

The new law allows projects up to 1,000 acres to be categorically excluded from all environmental review if the agencies claim that insects (including native insects) pose a threat to these forests. This has long been an excuse for inappropriate and illegal logging.

Since the commercial timber sales are a money loser for the federal treasury, the administration plans to pay logging companies in large commercially valuable trees instead of cash for their "services". The timber industry will now receive timber as their payment for building roads to cut down forests and if roads can’t be built, logging companies will be given a subsidy to cover the cost of removing trees by helicopter.

HFI’s purported rationale is to protect communities from forest fires by encouraging thinning. The official line is that public forests have become so dense that they are more or less catastrophes in waiting.

But Dix argues that the logic of the bill is deceptive. "While more than 85 percent of the communities that need fire-work done directly around them are on private, not public land, the bill focuses funds on remote public lands…. It is highly likely that homes will continue to burn due to the fact that agencies have no incentive to spend money to protect communities or even to prioritize this needed community protection work…. In fact, commercial logging and associated road building, activities known to increase the risk and severity of fire, [will] increase dramatically under the legislation thanks to the new powers granted to the USFS and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)."

Like many other current Bush administration bills, HFI utilizes a bizarre form of Orwellian doublespeak. As Dix puts it, HFI has no "substantive measures to protect forests and make them ‘healthy.’"

But if the bill was so obviously flawed, why did it pass so resoundingly through both the House and the Senate?

During initial stages of debate, with many Senators opposed the bill, and for months republicans were not able to overcome a filibuster. However, after backdoor deals with republican Senators, Tom Daschle (D-SD) urged the Senate to act on the legislation, thereby challenging the filibuster and offering a tremendous gift to the Bush administration.

But despite these moves, the bill continued to meet with opposition. As Dix puts it: "due to sustained public pressure, it appeared that the deal still would not get enough votes to break the filibuster in the Senate, and it remained stalled. In fact, it was highly likely that the deal would not have gained enough political support to pass the Senate—that is until Southern California started burning."

One of the ways that republicans were able to challenge opposition to HFI was by pitting environmentalists as scapegoats for the forest fires. The effect on the democratic Senators was dramatic. Daschle’s deal passed the Senate on October 30—two days after the fires began. The conference bill on HR.1904, which contained even fewer protections for old growth trees, passed on November 21. Then on December 3, Bush signed the HFI into law.

And with that, Bush finally made good on the $3.4 million the timber industry gave to his 2000 campaign.

The new law will affect forest policy in areas far beyond the wildfires of Southern California. Mark Rey, Bush’s chief architect for forest policy, has long wanted to go after the coveted forest reserves in Alaska. Rey’s connections to the timber industry are well documented. In a recent Rolling Stone article, Osha Gray describes his career before he became the undersecretary for national resources and the environment:

Before joining the Bush administration, Rey worked for two decades as a lobbyist for the timber industry, making it easier for his clients to cut down national forests. In the past four years, Rey’s old employers have given more than $11 million to Bush and other Republican candidates. International Paper contributed $2.1 million, Georgia-Pacific kicked in $863,000, Weyerhaeuser gave $666,000 and the American Forest and Paper Association donated $365,000.

Rey has done his best to repay the favor. In December 2001, only two months after taking office, he personally authorized a massive "salvage" timber sale in Bitterroot National Forest in Montana following a fire—sidestepping the normal process, which requires approval by a local forest supervisor and provides the public forty-five days to appeal the decision. A District Court judge halted the sale and chastised Rey for his "extralegal effort to circumvent the law."

But with the passage of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, such "extralegal efforts" will be effectively legal.

Editors note; Why is it said in every Corporate news broadcast, "heat wave expected to
Increase fire danger"?? And why is it Mexico which has a similar climate to California,
In many places, has very few large forest fires?
Could it be that Mexico has no money to pay the fire industry like we do in the United States?


Sign-up for POOR email!