A walk in the woods [Corrected 03/03/04]

A walk in the woods [Corrected 03/03/04]

James Hagengruber Staff Writer Staff writer Hilary Kraus

Standing before a backdrop of burning piles of pine slash, Interior Secretary Gale Norton said work being done at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge is a prime example of the Bush Administration’s efforts to improve the health of the West’s forests.

“I want to say how great this forest looks,” Norton said Friday afternoon during a tour of the refuge, south of Cheney.

Norton was visiting Friday to tour the refuge and speak at the Spokane County Republican party’s annual Lincoln Day dinner at Spokane’s Davenport Hotel, stumping for President Bush’s re-election campaign.

For the past decade, the refuge has attempted to nurse its landscape back to health using fire. The process has been more tedious and difficult than refuge managers expected, but large tracts of the forest are now beginning to look like they did 100 years ago. The thinned forests are more resistant to disease, insects and catastrophic wildfire, refuge officials say.

Such work is needed on 190 million acres of thick forest in the West, Norton said, speaking to a small gathering of wildlife refuge workers and reporters.

“We need to do something to change the management of our forests,” Norton said at the press conference.

If the Turnbull Refuge is any indication, a monumental effort will be needed. The Bush Administration hopes to treat 4million acres of Western forests next year, up from 1.2million acres four years ago, Norton said.

For most of the 20th Century, the federal government attempted to keep wildfire from the landscape, said Nancy Curry, project leader at the refuge. Attitudes have changed in the last decade – prompted in part by the explosive fires in Yellowstone National Park in 1988.

Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge initiated a fire program in 1990, Curry said. The goal was to start with small burns between 200 and 400 acres. But nearly a century of built-up fuels caused the fires to burn with an unexpected ferocity. This meant the forest first needed to be thinned with chainsaws and lopping shears.

Much of the refuge was filled with up to 1,000 trees per acre. The goal is about 25 trees per acre. Trimmings from a 5-acre section was burned Friday.

Norton walked through the smoke-filled forest, admiring the results. The ground was soft. It was covered by a thick mat of pine needles and dried grass.

Firefighters in yellow, fireproof shirts gathered to shake Norton’s hand. They stood in a line holding pitchforks and shovels. Their faces were smudged with sweat and soot. “You smell like campfires,” Norton said, smiling.

Elk have returned to the forest, attracted in part by new stands of aspen growing in the burned areas. Refuge managers hope the Lewis’s woodpecker will someday soon be spotted in the mature stands of ponderosa pine.

About 2,500 acres of the 11,000-acre refuge have been treated with prescribed burns. A private contractor thinned portions of the forest, taking saw logs as payment. Some of the smaller trees were used for firewood or pulverized into hog feed.

The news pleased Norton. “I’m always talking about trying to find creative things to do with the little stuff.”

The Bush Administration is asking for $765million next year for forest thinning and rehabilitation projects under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act.

Environmentalists are blasting the new law, saying it opens up vast tracts of forest for logging and cuts public participation from the management process.

Eugene Kiver, a retired Eastern Washington University geology professor and board member of the Friends of Turnbull, is among those who worry about the new law.

“I’m concerned there is not the public input with the Healthy Forest Initiative,” Kiver said after hearing Norton speak.

Local rancher John Phillips supports the notion of returning fire to the forests, but he doubts there’s enough resources to do it safely. Phillips received a small federal grant last year to pay for forest thinning on 30 acres he owns adjoining the wildlife refuge. The work was difficult and took nearly five months.

“There’s quite a few neighbors who want to do the same thing, but I don’t think there’s going to be enough money to do it all,” Phillips said.

In Washington, 173,000 acres of forest have been thinned or treated with prescribed burns since 2001 at a cost of $41.5million, Norton said.

Although this represents but a sliver of the overgrown forests of the West, Norton sees it as an improvement from the days when all wildfire was seen as a force of evil.

“We’ve made incredible progress in how we manage fire and how we manage forests around the country,” Norton said.

Later, at the Lincoln Day dinner, Norton told the crowd of about 300 GOP supporters that critics are wrong to paint the Healthy Forests initiative as a threat to old-growth forests. She drew a comparison between the initiative’s goal of thinning the forest, and the work Bush does at home in Texas.

“On his ranch, he gets out and clears brush himself,” she said. “He and Laura love the ranch and care about the land.”

Norton spoke for about 20 minutes, driving home the theme that “some of the accomplishments (of the Bush Administration) don’t make the news.”

She spoke about taking care of national parks, where 13,000 projects are underway. And she talked about efforts to restore Pacific Northwest salmon, which in recent years have benefitted from good water conditions.

“The salmon are tremendously successful. Perhaps not quite as successful as the Gonzaga Bulldogs,” she said, a day after the university’s men’s basketball team extended its winning streak to 17.

She encouraged local Republicans to continue to be active in the campaign.

“You are the ones who are on the front lines,” she said. “With (Bush’s) leadership, America is on the right track and with your help, we will have another four years.”

Copyright 2004 Cowles Publishing Company

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