Guest Opinions

Logging alone won’t mitigate wildfire risk

Simplistic ideas have a mass appeal but can get you into trouble in a complex world.

Fred Birnbaum, of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, made another of those simplistic arguments in his Nov. 5 Podium column about the emotional topic of wildfires in Idaho. His theory: If we logged more of Idaho’s national forests, we would live in a world virtually free of fire.

Birnbaum’s argument should be taken for what it is: an ideologically driven statement with a hidden motive. The Idaho Freedom Foundation believes Congress should sell Idaho’s public lands to the highest bidder. This argument is simply an attempt to scare Idahoans with misinformation.

When scrutinized, their argument doesn’t hold up well under the facts.

We agree that forest management, including careful logging, is one tool that can help reduce the impacts of fires in specific, localized cases. Beyond that…it’s smoke and mirrors.

Like it or not, Idaho burns. When summer drought, wind and the slightest spark coincide, there will be a fire. It matters not whether these conditions are found on public or private ground. Mother Nature doesn’t respect property boundaries.

During Idaho’s 2015 wildfire season, fires affected backcountry forests, heavily grazed ranchlands, stubble fields and everything in between. Basically, if a piece of ground was not paved, it was flammable. In fact, some of the most damaging fires were in landscapes subjected to intensive logging.

The Idaho Department of Lands manages its lands not for “multiple use” but to maximize dollars gained from timber sales. Across the board, its lands are “intensively managed” or heavily logged.

During 2015, fires that started on state-managed and private land in the Clearwater region swept across the landscape with no regard for property boundaries. As a result, more than 50 homes burned down and 50 families were left homeless. Hot, damaging fires near Sandpoint also burned on IDL and private lands before finally being corralled.

Whether or not you believe climate change is caused by human activity, the fact remains that since 1988, Idaho has seen a steady trend of hotter, drier summers. Bigger fires have followed. Fire season starts earlier and lasts longer today than it did just a few decades ago, as witnessed by the Walker Fire (near Idaho City) which ignited under summerlike conditions on Oct. 10.

Birnbaum also dismisses another important fact: When wildfires strike, Idahoans work together to keep people and property safe, and to manage those fires as best we can. On the fire lines, we see local volunteer firefighters, those from the Idaho Department of Lands and those from the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Native American Tribes working literally shoulder to shoulder. Idahoans should be relieved that the federal government kicks in to help out Idaho during these times of need. Without them, state taxpayers would be left holding the bag.

There are things we can do to address wildfires in Idaho. We should make sure that communities are well planned and that rural subdivisions aren’t built in particularly fire-prone areas. We should carefully plan forest thinning to reduce fuel loads around homes and towns. And we should take particular care to keep our streams and rivers healthy as they face the stress of higher temperatures and low water.

Pull back the curtain on the Idaho Freedom Foundation and it’s easy to see its real agenda: The group dislikes national forests and other public land. America’s national forests are popular and successful, and this conflicts with their anti-government philosophy.

Idahoans know that our national forests are special both for Idaho and all Americans. And Idahoans also know when someone is blowing smoke.

Jonathan Oppenheimer is senior conservation associate at the Idaho Conservation League.