& & by Ben Long & & & &

News flash! Monica Lewinsky was seen playing with matches in the woods of Montana this week. Not really, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear such an allegation, given the rhetoric flying around this summer.

What can you expect when a presidential election year coincides with the hottest fire season in decades? Humans instinctively fear fire and have only the most rudimentary sense of fire ecology. Thus, forest fires are ripe for cynical exploitation.

Specifically shameful is the way the timber industry and its political toadies are blaming President Bill Clinton, environmentalists and other corporate critics for Montana's red-hot fire season. Forest fires have blackened the Rockies since the end of the Pleistocene, but you would think our troubles started with the end of the Bush Administration.

One industry carnival barker called it "poetic justice" that the Bitterroot Valley was ablaze, given the lack of timber sold in recent years on the Bitterroot National Forest. (Never mind that 50-plus houses have burned -- not much poetry in that.)

The Montana fires propelled Gov. Marc Racicot onto the sets of CNN and Good Morning America, where he took potshots at the Clinton Administration. (Never mind that Racicot is flirting with Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush to be the next Secretary of Interior.)

Boiled down, the timber industry argument is this: If only the industry had had its way with the public woods, this never would have happened. Worst of all is the Clinton roadless initiative, which, by preventing logging in the last wild landscapes in America, would condemn the Rockies to a fiery future.

As with most effective propaganda, there is a grain of truth to be exploited here. Some forests are "overstocked" with trees after 70 years of effective fire fighting. And some environmentalists seem morally opposed to killing a tree, even when there is good reason to do so.

But beyond that, the industry line pumps out more hot air than a wildfire.

Recall that the most dangerous, destructive fires in American history were the direct result of logging. Between 1871-1894, logging companies clearcut the upper Midwest, leaving slash to burn. The resulting conflagrations killed 2,000 people and destroyed entire towns. So much for the equation that "logging = safety."

In fact, logging has increased fire hazards in some forests. Mature, fire-resistant pine and larch were often plucked out of forests, leaving shabby stands of Douglas fir, more prone to root rot, mistletoe and other diseases and thus prone to fire. Some companies still do this, ironically calling it "environmental forestry."

Many fires now burning in Montana are in forests checked with clearcuts and zigzagged with roads. Granted, roads give crews an edge in fighting fires, but they also introduce more fire starters. One of the most threatening fires in Montana, the complex near Canyon Ferry, was evidently started by a load of hot briquettes dumped after a picnic. Someone used a road to carry that barbecue to the woods.

Clearcuts themselves, full of dry stumps, pitchy young trees, grass and knapweed, are highly flammable during these periods of drought. In fact, they can burn faster than a fire in a mature stand.

From 1960 through the 1980s, the West's national forests were liberally logged, usually with big, square clearcuts. In the 1990s, the public slowed that down, over timber industry protests.

A few visionaries in the industry called for a fundamental change in the old way of doing business. But by and large, loggers and foresters preaching "restoration silviculture" have been ostracized by the industry's mainstream. The old guard seems set on returning to the days when Congressionally enforced timber targets had more authority than what was good for the land.

Nonetheless, the real tragedy is occurring in the Bitterroots. The blazes there started in both logged and unlogged forests, and quickly overwhelmed private lands that have been logged and grazed for 100 years. These lands burned centuries before that. Only recently, that valley has seen skyrocketing rural sprawl, right in the worst fire zones.

When the fall rains come and the fires go out, we will have some tough questions to answer. Can logging reduce the risk of fire? Yes it can, if done well. But does that justify exploiting a tragic loss of homes and physical danger as a political whip to flog opponents? No.

In the end, it will be up to the public to sift through the ashes and find the fragments of truth.

Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). He lives in Kalispell, Mont.

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