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Ready to Burn

Mike Kelsey, an avid mountain biker, has given up trying to navigate the obstructed trails in Arkansas' Ouachita National Forest.

"I'd be the first to probably venture out on the trails, but you can't hardly even walk them," he says. "Every 10 feet you're stepping over a fallen branch. And sometimes it's just tree upon a tree upon a tree." The ice storm that ravaged forests in three southern states may have rained down more than two months ago, but the scars left on forests throughout Arkansas, Oklahoma and Mississippi have hardly faded.

That arboreal wreckage is the result of ice storms that ravaged vast tracts of forest in the three states, leaving in their wake stacks of trees and branches that forest officials fear will do more than impede bikers like Kelsey.

Forest Service officials say 350,000 out of the 1.8 million acres that make up the Ouachita forest remain severely damaged from last January's ice storm, and the snapped branches and tree trunks could provide tinder for the sort of devastating wildfires that raged across much of the country last year. The prospect is especially troubling, say forest officials, since the region has experienced a three-year drought and, recently, very hot summers.

Damage Is Fuel

Dave Hammond, forest coordinator for the region says the damage "is almost impossible to imagine." He estimates the amount of trees fallen could create about 30,000 homes and endless stacks of newsprint.

"If we don't figure out a way to log and clear away these fuels, we could have really big fires and a serious smoke problem," he says.

Hammond, who came back from retirement to manage the Forest Service's cleanup of the Ouachita forest, is hoping to skip some environmental assessment procedures required under national environmental policy to speed up the work of clearing the forests. He explains the Forest Service wants to contract local loggers who will pay the government to clear and then sell the fallen timber.

But Sean Cosgrove, national forest policy adviser, argues bypassing environmental reviews is an overreaction that could lead to more harm than help.

"Just because there was a big ice storm and trees got knocked over doesn't mean it's a bad thing," says Cosgrove. "It's a natural event. To project that the trees will cause big wildfires is going out on a limb."

Normally forest officials are required to assess the impact of logging on water, soil, animals and vegetation and devise a proposal for clearing. That proposal must then be approved by the public. Hammond estimates going through the process could take at least three to four months and by then, he says, the region will already have entered wildfire season which generally begins in April and ends by October.

Hammond adds that forest workers normally would be setting controlled burns at this time of the year to reduce the possibility of big wildfires in coming months. But because of the tinder box of fuel covering the forest floor, crews will conduct controlled burns over only 15,000 acres rather than the usual 100,000 acres.

Clearing for What Cause?

Cosgrove says the way forest service workers clear land, sometimes leaving stray branches and tree tops in piles, can lead to greater fire hazards anyway.

"We've seen this happen in national forests in Minnesota," says Cosgrove. "They're just taking a natural process and turning it into a timber sale."

The Forest Service has already begun clearing roads and trails in the Ouachita forest, which stretches from western Arkansas into Oklahoma. Hammond estimates that fallen trees are blocking more than 2,600 miles of roads in the forest as well as at least 625 miles of foot trails.

Worst hit are the forests pine plantations, reports Jerry Williams of the Ouachita Watch League, a nonprofit coalition of people interested in management of the Ouachita forest. Softwood trees like pines, explains Williams, are more vulnerable to storm damage since they maintain leaves or pine needles through winter and therefore catch more of the falling ice and snow. The weight of the ice and snow then strip the trees of their branches.

"The pine plantations are just rows of toothpicks now," says Williams. "You see 10-15 foot high poles with nothing on them."

Wildfires in Florida may have the spotlight now, but meteorologists plan to keep an eye on the central southern states as wildfire season approaches the region.

"We expect the region to be at risk as the season progresses," says Joe Schaefer, director of the storm and wildfire prediction center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. "We've had a wet spring. Once that starts to dry out then we'll be watching it closely."

-- Martin Thompson (, February 28, 2001

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