MacNeil, John S. 2000. Forest fire plan kindles debate. Science 289:1448-1449.

Forest fires burning in the western United States have already scorched over 2.5 million hectares this summer. Now a federal proposal to prevent them by paying loggers to cut smaller trees is generating heat among ecologists, who say the approach may not be right for all forests--or all fires. Leaders of western states have sharply criticized the Clinton Administration for not doing enough to prevent the blazes, the worst in nearly a century. They say that recent policies, including suppressing wildfires and logging only mature trees, have allowed western forests to grow unnaturally dense with young trees and made them more vulnerable to fire. Reacting to that criticism, the Administration said last week that it will soon release a plan to dramatically expand an experimental approach to fire prevention that emphasizes aggressive cutting of smaller trees. Although officials of the Interior and Agriculture departments are still working out the plan's details, it is expected to include paying loggers nearly $825 million a year to remove trees too small to be commercially valuable from 16 million hectares of western forests.

The plan draws heavily from insights into fire control on federally managed lands made by ecologist Wallace Covington of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. In one case, for example, the Forest Service paid professional loggers to remove 90% of the trees from a 36-hectare swath of low-altitude ponderosa pine in the Kaibab National Forest near Flagstaff. When a wildfire unexpectedly swept through the area last June, it burned the sparsely populated stand far less severely than the denser surrounding forest.

Pete Fulé, a member of Covington's team, says that drastic thinning of the plot is the reason. With less fuel, the flames could no longer leap from treetop to treetop, he says, and when the fire spread along the ground it ignited only the underbrush. Mechanical cutting is necessary, Fulé says, because thinning forests with controlled burns "has not proven effective, at least in many instances."

But environmentalists say the widespread logging would harm forests, not help them. And some scientists say other combinations of cuts and burns may achieve the same results with less disruption. Covington's approach "doesn't use as wide an array of possible tools as we're using," says Phil Weatherspoon of the Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Research Station in Redding, California. He is involved in an 11-site project that is examining various fire prevention schemes, from mechanical cutting alone to just prescriptive burns. Forest managers, he says, should get data on the potential costs and ecological consequences of various approaches before proceeding.

Heavy thinning also may not address other causes of the recent fires, says Bill Baker, a geographer at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. Before settlers began grazing livestock in western forests, he notes, grasses competed with the young trees that now clog the landscape. "What's missing [from Covington's approach] is an emphasis on restoring grasses," says Baker. "Without it I don't think it's going to work." And Tom Swetnam, an ecologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, thinks hot, dry weather brought on by La Niña climate patterns may have contributed to the severity of this year's fires--not just the accumulation of combustible young trees. As a result, he says, "there is some danger that [Covington's model] might be overextrapolated in the West." Covington and his supporters agree that it would be a mistake to treat all forests the same. "We've got a score of forests, all of which burn differently," says Steve Pyne, an environmental historian at the University of Arizona who is involved with Covington's project. But Pyne defends the Arizona site as representative of a common western ecosystem. "I think we understand why [ponderosa pine forests] are burning and what to do about it," says Pyne.

Despite their disagreements, both sides say that federal officials need to do more to prevent future wildfires. "The problem is not that we're doing too much, but that we're not doing enough," says Craig Allen, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The challenge is to come up with a plan flexible enough to fit all the nation's hot spots.

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Malakoff, David. 2002. Arizona ecologist puts stamp on forest restoration debate. Science 297:2194-2196.

It's hard to resist comparing forest ecologist Wally Covington to the old-growth ponderosa pines that tower above this bustling mountain town. Both are tall and burly, with rugged skins molded by age and experience. And like the pines, Covington is a lightning rod. But he doesn't burn easily. "I am incredibly confident in what I do--and I have a very thick skin," he says.

Over the last few years, the 55-year-old academic has emerged as perhaps the nation's most visible--and controversial--forest scientist. The folksy, 2-meter-tall woodlands expert has become a scientific Paul Bunyan on the subject of how to prevent forest fires. He is consulted by presidents and lawmakers, courted by the media, and hailed and assailed by environmentalists, loggers, and scientists alike. His research underpins parts of the White House's controversial new "healthy forests" initiative, and President George W. Bush himself might make a pilgrimage to the researcher's plots this week --all this because Covington believes in cutting down some trees in the name of saving forests.

This year's conflagration in the western United States--which scorched 2.5 million hectares of forest--has only heightened interest in Covington's work. He and his colleagues at Northern Arizona University (NAU) here have spent 3 decades studying southwestern ponderosa pine ecosystems. For years, they've warned that vast swaths of woodland have become dangerous tinderboxes: A century of overgrazing, logging, and misguided fire-suppression policies has left many stands unnaturally choked with thickets of young trees and deadwood. To prevent catastrophic fires, Covington argues that massive cutting is needed to restore these forests to their less dense, parklike pasts. The idea is being promoted by the president in his plan, now before Congress.

Some researchers and environmentalists, however, are uncomfortable with Covington's approach to forest restoration. They complain that he has used his political prowess to monopolize resources and worry that government officials might misapply his ponderosa-based ideas to dramatically different types of woodlands. And they charge that loggers have cynically embraced his work to justify a return to damaging practices. "Unfortunately, his science gives political cover to forces that want to increase logging," says Todd Schulke of the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy group in Tucson, Arizona.

Still, even critics applaud Covington for bringing the plight of the southwestern forests to national attention. They also confess to liking him. "We disagree, but I really enjoy his company," says Schulke.

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