Forest scientists say that a new federal law may amount to so much smoke. Last week President George W. Bush signed legislation aimed at reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires that have become a regular summertime occurrence throughout the American West. But inadequate monitoring of forest-thinning practices could hamper its effectiveness, say researchers. Environmental groups object to tight limits on reviews of timber sales.
Bush proposed the "Healthy Forests" initiative during an August 2002 visit to a fire-ravaged forest in Oregon. The measure authorizes spending of $760 million a year--an increase of $340 million over this year's level--to thin forests on federal lands that have grown dense due to a century of fire suppression. The fuel buildup encourages small fires to grow out of control.
The House passed the bill in May, but senators were concerned that too much thinning would take place away from urban areas, where the threat to homes and property is the greatest. Opposition melted away after October's wildfires in California, which killed 22 people and burned 300,000 hectares. Researchers had hoped that 5% of the annual forest-thinning budget would be reserved for regional centers to study the effectiveness of various alternative thinning practices. But their suggestion didn't make it into the final bill. "The legislation does some very good things in bringing a focus to parts of the Western forest that are in serious condition. But it's weak on the science," says Hal Salwasser, dean of the Oregon State University College of Forestry in Corvallis.
Of concern to many environmentalists are the limits on the public review process that has been their most successful tool in halting logging. Among other provisions, the law allows timber sale opponents only 60 days to file for an injunction. That's often not enough time to do the fieldwork needed to evaluate a sale, says Kieran Suckling, who directs the Center for Biological Diversity, a research and advocacy group in Tucson, Arizona.
Others say the new law doesn't go far enough. "It treats only 20 million acres [8 million hectares] out of about a couple of hundred million acres that are in trouble," adds Wally Covington of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, who has long pushed for widespread efforts to reduce the buildup of forest biomass (Science, 27 September 2002, p. 2194).