MESA, Ariz. (AP) - Almost a year after the Rodeo-Chediski fire
charred nearly a half-million acres in eastern Arizona,
insurmountable laws, legal maneuvering and distrust between
forestry officials and environmentalists are hampering efforts to
prevent a repeat, a newspaper reported.
After a four-month investigation, the East Valley Tribune
reports this week that paperwork delays are combining with drought,
overgrown forests and insect infestations to continue extreme
wildfire conditions in Arizona.
The Tribune reviewed more than 10,000 pages of documents and
court files and conducted more than 100 interviews with government
officials, environmentalists, academics and people affected by
wildfires and forest health. It reports that a bureaucratic maze
makes it virtually impossible to thin Arizona's forests, setting
the stage for more catastrophic wildfires.
"This is absolutely going to happen unless we do something
about it," said Wally Covington, a forestry professor at Northern
Arizona University. "And we don't have much time."
It can take up to five years to plan a project to thin forests
of debris and excess trees and defend those plans against appeals
and lawsuits by environmental groups.
For example, one large-scale thinning project in the
Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest was stalled for three years by
appeals and a lawsuit, according to court records. Ninety percent
of the land in question burned in the Rodeo-Chediski fire.
Little has changed since the Rodeo-Chediski fire. That fire was
driven by the worst drought in recorded history, dense and
overgrown thickets of trees and the accumulation of tons of debris
on the ground. Winter rain is expected to push back the start of
the wildfire season, but a half-million acres of forest in Arizona
also are being ravaged by bark beetles, which have killed millions
of trees.
Because of convoluted and conflicting laws, environmental
groups, or even a single individual, may bring appeals and lawsuits
that can tie up forest decisions for years, agency officials say.
Federal bureaucracies add to the delays by creating their own
rules and regulations on top of existing laws, the newspaper said.
Efforts to thin forests might have to go through 800 steps,
according to an agency's documents. At any of those steps, the
entire project can be sent back to the beginning.
"It's stagnation," said Pat Jackson, appeals and litigation
officer for the Forest Services Southwest region. "It's paralysis.
What you are seeing is a buildup over time of statutory
requirements and regulatory requirements that are just very
time-consuming and burdensome, and not always working toward the
same end.
"You spend all of your time hanging paper. Which does what for
the resource on the ground? The answer is all this paper doesn't do
anything. Eve got to change the rules."
Environmentalists generally agreed that the forests are in an
unhealthy and dangerous state due to an overstocking of trees and a
buildup of fuel on the forest floor, said Brian Segee of the
Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.
But Segee and other environmental activists said the reason for
the problem is the Forest Services long history of kowtowing to the
timber industry. Segee said that for the last century forests have
been managed to maximize timber production, leading to policies
such as fire suppression and allowing the oldest, most
fire-resistant trees to be cut.
Segee called attempts by the Forest Service and the Bush
administration to rewrite the laws an attempt to allow the timber
industry to exercise absolute control over forest management.
"I guess I'm always a little struck when I see these reports
about this morass of regulations that is indecipherable," Segee
said. "These laws are certainly not the most complex laws on the
books. The underlying motivation is that the Forest Service wants
to do what it wants to do and the public be damned."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)