State's forests great assets

Published 8:08 am Wednesday, February 18, 2004

By Staff
In any recap of the nation's top stories of last year, the devastating wildfires out west garnered a substantial share of the media coverage. Seemingly removed from the lives of Alabamians, these catastrophic fires were wake-up calls to threats facing our own forests and communities. However, Congress and the President took action to reduce these threats.
America has a lot of forest land with much of it located in the western states. This region, which has been experiencing several years of very dry conditions, has seen an explosion of wildfires. In the past two years alone, 147,049 fires burned nearly 11 million acres. In 2002, more than 88,000 fires consumed nearly 7 million acres. This year has brought almost 60,000 fires charring about 4 million acres. In 2003, 6,800 structures were destroyed by fire (4,800 in California alone).
The statistics seem to be just numbers on paper, but they impact lives and our pocketbooks. In 2002 and 2003, over $250 million was spent just combating fires in California. The toll in priceless human lives has been equally high with 51 firefighters and 22 civilians killed as a result of these horrific firestorms.
To see this as a "western" U.S. problem only would be a major mistake.
Dry conditions alone are not the culprit for these tragedies, but merely the catalyst. Truth is, decades of inadequate culling of federal forest lands has created the very conditions that give rise to catastrophic fires posing a direct danger to wildlife, firefighters, and the public.
Alabama may be a long way from California, but it is home to abundant forest land. We have 22 million acres, or two thirds of the state, in private and public forest land. Not surprisingly, forestry is the number one industry in Alabama, generating $13 billion in sales and $4.2 billion in wages. We have a great interest in protecting our forests not only for the economic benefit they afford us, but for our own safety.
Last December, President Bush signed legislation passed by Congress aimed at protecting our forests and surrounding communities from the tragedy of catastrophic fire. The Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 will give federal land managers the flexibility to reduce dense undergrowth through thinning and prescribed burns. Previously, such stewardship of public forest land was blocked by radical environmentalists thinking they were "protecting" forest lands. Ironically, decades of such "protection" have transformed federal forest lands into tinderboxes just waiting to explode.
Alabama's national forests -- Conecuh, Tuskegee, Talladega, and Bankhead -- are at medium to high risk of fire, insect infestation, and disease. The Healthy Forests Restoration Act will also allow federal forest managers to fight costly disease and insect threats by removing infested trees before pests have time to spread throughout the entire forest. The benefits of fire and pest prevention not only positively impact our forest lands but also our local economy.
I was pleased to cosponsor and vote for the Healthy Forests Restoration Act and believe it to be a good first step in making sure that nature's abundance is properly managed for the benefit of both mankind and wildlife.

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