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Folk fire and forest history

Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig, long one of the timber industry's biggest supporters has always had a novel alternative history of forest management in the West. In Sen. Craig's narrative we had sound forest management in western forests from the time the Weyerhaeuser's cut down the first growth of trees and the Forest Service put out all the fires. This age of enlightenment, in Craig's forest history, ended in the 1970s when environmentalists came along and handcuffed the timber industry. Suddenly, overnight the forests filled with fuel and bugs and disease and made Idaho and the West's forests unhealthy. Beginning in the 1980s the forests started burning and the federal government began letting them burn up. The gist of Craig's folk forest history is that the only way to fix Idaho and the West's forests is through logging. His basic story hasn't changed since the early 1990s. The actual history is of course different, according to every forest scientist and historian around. Fire burned through different forest types in the state at different frequencies depending on the forest type, the climate and other factors. In the low elevation ponderosa pine forests, fire regularly burned every seven to 30 years thinning out the underbrush and young trees but leaving the thick-barked pines. Cattle ranchers moved in and grazed down the grasses, reducing the fuels that carried the frequent small fires. Miners and loggers cut down the biggest trees and left the species that weren't marketable. Fire suppression eliminated the small fires. The number of trees per acre began rising. The national forests, protected by Teddy Roosevelt were not intensively managed until after World War II. The only management previously was fire suppression, which became increasingly successful until after the war. But with most of the private forests of the Pacific Northwest now young and growing after harvests in the first half of the century, the national forests became the woodshed of the post-war nation. Timber companies were given long, large contracts to cut down forests that included both good and questionable forest practices. Environmentalists really didn't have much impact on the harvest until the 1980s, when problems with water quality from poor roads and preserving endangered species led the nation to overcorrect at the same time Craig was building his career in Congress. Now, in the waning days of that career the world's scientists say that climate change is already happening due to the human release of greenhouse gases. Craig, still says he's not convinced. But he said on the Senate floor last month that there is another culprit for the carbon in the atmosphere. It is forest fire. These fires, caused he said now that the Forest Service no longer fully suppresses fire, are a major source of carbon. His answer? Logging, of course. Now make no mistake, logging is likely part of the answer. Forest scientists say that managing our forests to promote resilience may help them sequester more carbon and restore some of them to a healthy cycle. But because of climate changes, some forests destroyed by the fires that were at least aided by decades of full fire suppression, will grow back as something else. Craig's narrative fits the frustrations of many westerners who have watched their forests burn up and seen millions of board feet of timber that could have been turned into jobs destroyed. But he ignores the role that decades of fire suppression had in turning the forests into tinderboxes. ---------- Rocky Barker is the author of Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and environmental reporter for the Idaho Statesman.