Debra J. Saunders

The best part about Healthy Forests: It would allow loggers to clear branches and brush on the ground -- and their payment for the work would be small or medium trees, not taxpayer money, which is unlikely to appear.

The Forest Service's Matthes said the bill isn't the brainchild of President Bush; the impetus "came from field people of the U.S. Forest Service," who found that as logging decreased, fires have been getting "bigger and hotter." It makes fire sense. Scott Stephens, a University of California, Berkeley, assistant professor of fire science, wants more explicit language in the bill requiring loggers to clear downed branches and brush -- not that he's enamored with the status quo.

Before the fires, Stephens saw workers using chipping machines on trees near Lake Arrowhead and then leaving the chips on the ground. Why? Because there was no sawmill or biomass plant nearby. It didn't pay to transport the logs to a distant sawmill.

The downed trees, he said, made the Lake Arrowhead area safer when the fires hit -- but they were a colossal waste of good wood. It's an odd country that is so environmentally sensitive that it risks devastating fires by limiting selective cutting but permits wasting the same trees.

Debra J. Saunders

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