i& Section 1 Chicago Tribune, Monday, March 31. 1997 IU.S. plan to burn forests comes under fire Associated Press D WASHINGTON Smokey Bear .Hnade a career of stomping out fires, so it might seem odd to wliunn ui me u.a. roresi service getting trees ablaze. "When I grew up, fire was Always the enemy of the forest. Now it's a friend?" asked Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.) at a recent earing. Fearing spread of controlled blazes, critics call for more salvage logging Not everybody is happy with Clinton administration plans to increase so-called prescribed Wburning to 1.3 million acres in 1998 from 750,000 acres this year JLo clear overstocked national forests of dead and dying timber. Rep. Bob Smith (R-Ore.), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, sees "a lot of hidden problems in prescribed burning" and prefers that salvage logging lear forest floors of tinder instead. "People will always make mis-judgments. Nobody can predict the weather," said Smith, worried about blazes getting out of hand. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck agrees, telling lawmakers, "There isn't a burn that's not dangerous." Dombeck added that more controlled blazes are needed to reduce fuel loads that threaten catastrophic blazes at one-fifth of the 191 million acres of U.S. national forests the result of decades of "extensive, overzeal-ous if you will, fire suppression." That's right The Forest Service has done too good a job of fighting fires, even as the government set an average of 300,000 acres burning to get rid of dead and dying trees every year for the past decade. Until recently, federal firefight- The Perfect Gift o sj I J 1 ,1 A : 1 tm Balloon Flights Gift Certificates Available 16 Years Experience FAA Licensed Pilots Fully Insured $99 Rag. $1M 0 W Expires 41197 1-888-789-7400 A rtTiWM.UibMt ers who saw 6 million acres burn naturally last year tried to douse every blaze. As a result, they upset the natural cycle of fire that for 10,000 years made way for more mature trees. "The price we have paid for 60, 80 or 100 years of very effective fire suppression is that we have changed the succession of ecosystems," said Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. The problem has been compounded by clearcut logging that stripped forests of native tree species, Babbitt said. Many were replaced by less fire-resistant trees that are more susceptible to insects and disease. In arguing for prescriptive burns, Babbitt used the analogy of a person with "a long history of poor eating habits and indigestion. ... We need to burn off the unhealthy fat, not practice forest liposuction." The Forest Service wants $30 million to $50 million for the burning program for fiscal 1998 to set fire to between 850,000 acres and 1.3 million acres. With a planned burn, Dombeck said, the Forest Service can choose favorable conditions, temperatures, humidity, wind direction and speed. "If there's a disaster, Mother Nature takes its own course. There's no ability to control the situation," Dombeck said. Environmentalists prefer prescribed burning as a more natural alternative to the removal of dead and dying timber. The charred, decaying wood left by fires nurtures soil and provides habitat for wildlife. : "We don't buy the argument that you have to get in there and harvest timber in order to make the woods safe from fire," said Greg Aplet, a forest ecologist for The Wilderness Society in Denver. A clear cut doesn't leave "the biological legacy of a natural fire," he said. Rep. Smith believes there's too much dead wood in the forests now to rely on prescribed fires. "When you get the kind of fuel loading we have now, you can't fight fires. You just get out of the way," he said. Elaine Zielinski, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's state director for Oregon and Washington, said she doesn't personally like prescribed fires. "I hate them. There's all the smoke. They are dangerous. People think you set a line and it stops." But right now, she added, "We have to look at the tradeoffs out there. There's a feeling among a lot of folks that we have not used prescribed fire as much as we need to."