Sharon Galbreath, who has spent half of her 48 years fighting to preserve old-growth forests, contemplated a 23-inch-wide old-growth ponderosa pine with a vibrant blue slash across its trunk, indicating it is fated to be logged.
"I see something like this, I think, what are they doing?" she said, standing in a clearing where towering old-growth trees soared skyward amid hundreds of stumps -- blunt testimony to past logging.
The proposed auction of new logging rights here reflects a shift in the federal government's forest management priorities that disturbs environmentalists, who say it is giving the timber industry access to previously off-limits forests under the guise of reducing the danger of wildfires. And though the timber sales produce revenue for the Treasury, the cost of administering the auctions is forcing the U.S. Forest Service to defer other conservation projects.
In its environmental assessment of the proposed auction here, an area dubbed East Rim because it rises from the eastern borders of the Grand Canyon, the Forest Service cited the fire threat as the No. 2 reason for going ahead: "The existing dead and live fuels have a definite potential to feed a destructive wildfire, endangering firefighters and the public alike and possibly consuming facilities and valuable wildlife habitat." It did not mention that the closest real residential community is 48 miles away.
Late last year, Congress made such timber sales easier when it passed the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which will speed up approval of projects that are aimed at reducing "hazardous fuels" on federal lands. The measure won bipartisan support after two years of devastating forest fires that alarmed lawmakers and citizens alike, and it has been embraced by the Bush administration.
By 2000, forest fires had reached historic proportions. That year and 2002 rank as two of the worst wild land-fire seasons in 50 years. In 2002 alone, 88,458 fires burned roughly 7 million acres in states including New Mexico, Oregon, Colorado and Arizona, destroying more than 800 structures and killing 23 firefighters.
For years, federal and state policy had been to prevent fires on public land, suppressing naturally occurring forest fires to protect wildlife habitat and nearby communities. Over time, smaller trees sprang up and served as a natural conduit for bigger fires. The forests became more tightly packed, leaving little room for wildlife to roam and for intermittent fires to exhaust themselves. Years of drought exacerbated the problem.
This century of fire suppression was, in the words of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who supported the restoration act, "a failed policy."
Although the Forest Service has just begun to use its new powers under the act, the agency is pursuing a new forest fire strategy across the country. It estimates that 191 million acres of federal land, out of a total of 800 million, pose a fire risk. This sort of analysis has helped fuel the shift in federal policy in areas beyond the 20 million acres directly subject to the act, and it is alarming environmentalists who are trying to keep national forests off-limits to loggers.
Galbreath, executive director of the Southwest Forest Alliance, said the best fire prevention policy would be to clear out trees immediately adjacent to residential communities and to log only the smallest trees in national forests.
Until recently, Democrats had been fighting the Bush administration's efforts to accelerate logging on public lands in the name of forest fire prevention. But under pressure from constituents worried about fires, senators such as Feinstein have found common ground with Republicans on the issue, reaching an accord that will make it easier to log 20 million federal acres over the next five years.
"You've got to go in and clear out the forests," Feinstein said in a recent interview, dismissing criticism of the act. "Environmentalists didn't like the bill. They do not want the trees cut."
The consensus in Washington on how to reduce the risk of fire on federal land does not reach to such places as the Grand Canyon or the Klamath-Siskiyou region of southern Oregon, where environmentalists are fighting to halt pending sales that will fell tens of thousands of trees. Bush administration officials call these protests misguided.
"We're engaged in an effort to return the forests and rangelands to a point of ecological sustainability at which fire can play a more natural role," said Mark Rey, Agriculture Department undersecretary for natural resources and environment. "In order to do that successfully, we have to reduce the amount of woody material in many of these areas." Under his scenario, fires would not spread as far because they would have fewer trees to consume.
But while both sides advocate removing the small trees that are the least fire resistant and ecologically valuable, federal officials face a problem. The logging industry has little interest in hauling away only skinny trees that will produce little economically.
Jim Matson, a southwest-area consultant for the Portland, Ore.-based American Forest Resource Council, said the timber industry "can't afford to subsidize the nation's forests."
These timber sales come at a cost: The Forest Service's timber sale program lost $947 million between 1992 and 2001, says the public watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Federal officials are scaling back elsewhere: Just this month they decided to postpone a year-long project aimed at protecting the Anderson Mesa in Arizona's Coconino National Forest because they did not have the money. "It's common knowledge a lot of dollars have been reprogrammed to address the fuels-reduction issue," said Carol Holland, the Coconino National Forest's analysis group leader.
A General Accounting Office report this month said the Forest Service and Interior Department took more than $2.7 billion from other programs to fund fire suppression over the past five years, which "resulted in canceled and delayed projects, strained relationships with state and local agency partners, and difficulties in managing programs."
Sean Cosgrove, the Sierra Club's land protection program's Washington representative, and other environmental advocates like to cite the work of Forest Service scientist Jack D. Cohen, who concluded after many experiments that the best fire prevention consists of clearing a quarter-mile area around people's homes. Cohen argues that if government officials pursued this course, they would stop fires from burning residential areas because there would be no fuel to feed the flames.
But many politicians reject this idea, saying forest fires have become so big they stretch for miles regardless of the fuel in their path. And some Forest Service officials say even if human communities survive fires, these natural disasters can destroy critical habitat and must be fought, no matter what.
To the dismay of people like Galbreath, the government is moving ahead with many projects.
The $1.2 million timber sale she is fighting at East Rim will produce 8 million board feet of lumber from 146,000 trees that are nine inches or less in diameter, but it will also fell 7,000 trees that are 18 to 24 inches in diameter, and 400 of the massive old-growth trees that are 24 inches or more. Initially proposed under President Bill Clinton to restore the forest and promote recreation, the logging plan was set aside for several years but revived a few weeks after President Bush took office.
Jonathan Beck, the environmental coordinator for the North Kaibab Ranger District, said the sale will not only guard against fires but also maintain old-growth trees and improve the habitat for the northern goshawk, a raptor, and its prey.
"It's a forest health project," Beck said, adding that the old-growth trees slated for cutting are being attacked by dwarf mistletoe, a natural parasite that eventually kills trees. "The strategy of thinning is pretty simple: You're taking out the smaller, denser trees so you're allowing the larger trees to grow."
At the moment, the East Rim sale is at a standstill until Sept. 1 because the Justice Department has signed off on Galbreath's request for a restraining order and sent it to an Arizona federal judge for approval. But the Forest Service is moving forward with other thinning projects.
Rick Miller, the Flagstaff manager for the Arizona Game and Fish habitat program, said the pressure to push through such projects has exacted some costs.
"The pressure is to get the work done," Miller said. "Right now, almost everything is being driven by the fire risk reduction. Some of it is very reasonable. And some of it's a problem."