'Roadless Lands' Setting the Woodsmen on Fire

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North of Boise a few days ago, I drove through high mountain desert — bald, sere, dun country with the look of the Middle East about it. The sky glared nearly white, hazed but cloudless, and the air was a breath of blast furnace, the temperature at 104 F. Military trucks passed, carrying more firefighters north to the Burgdorf fire.

A few miles above Horseshoe Bend, Idaho, the country changed so abruptly I might have drifted off at the wheel and awakened on a different continent. I was in steep, sharp geography, beside the tumbly Payette River, rising into mountains thick with ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. The air should have been pristine and crystal-cool in that setting; it remained as ominously hot and dry as desert.

It is this air, crackling with arsonist summer lightning, that is burning up huge patches of forest in the American West. It is the worst fire season in 50 years, or maybe 65. Almost 4 million acres are on fire in California, Idaho, Montana, Utah and other states, and even with so many firefighters working them, the fires will not be extinguished until the fall, when rain and snow will do the job.

I met a fourth-generation Idaho logger named Galen Hamilton, who is 43, and for the better part of a day we rode in his pickup truck (its bumper sticker: ARE YOU AN ENVIRONMENTALIST, OR DO YOU WORK FOR A LIVING?) along remote logging roads.

Much of this country is scheduled to come under Bill Clinton's roadless lands plan, an initiative that will bar future roadbuilding on 43 million acres of national forest land, 9 million of them in Idaho.

Here is one side of the controversy that plan has generated: Loggers like Galen Hamilton are outraged. They think that the forest fires now burning up the West are connected to policies like the roadless initiative, to what might be called the sentimental neglect of forests — the failure to manage them properly, to thin the woods, clear the deadfall, and diminish the dense fuel that burns apocalyptically hot when fire does come.

"This is the worst time NOT to manage our forests," says Galen Hamilton. "Management" (according to the loggers, anyway) means intelligent logging, culling out dead and dying trees and always regenerating the forest, a process that can be accomplished within 12 or 15 years. It means, they say, attacking bark beetle and spruce budworm and other diseases. It means prescribed — that is, carefully controlled — burns to clear off choking, potentially hot-burning undergrowth.

Foresters at Boise Cascade in Horseshoe Bend state the case with scientific elaboration. The argument is self-serving, but not necessarily wrong. Dave Van De Graaff, who oversees 195,000 acres as region timberlands manager for Boise Cascade, gives an hour's dissertation on the hazards of mismanaged forest, and argues, "By saying you cannot build roads, they are saying, Let it burn. A lot of the West has too much fuel. It'll burn. We believe the industry is not the problem but a big part of the solution."

But, Van De Graaff sighs, "We live in a sound-bite culture. 'Logging is bad.'" To the contrary, Van De Graaff believes, logging is forestry.

Galen Hamilton and others think that the Clinton roadless plan emanates from a mentality of simple-minded authoritarianism. Washington, they say, is dismissive of the informed views of the people who actually live on the land, and whose lives are most directly affected: whose school budgets are devastated and whose towns are likely to be closed down by the romantic, clueless environmentalism of elitist urbanites and ignorant pantheists.

The author Wallace Stegner wrote: "The remaining Western wilderness is the geography of hope." Right now, it is the geography of tinder. What's the best way to save it?

Galen Hamilton has his own, highly argumentative idea. Next time, I will offer the other side, the conservationist case in favor of the roadless lands.