Norton pushes for overhaul of forest management policy

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Norton pushes for overhaul of forest management policy

By CAIN BURDEAU
Associated Press Writer

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - With forest fires raging in the West, Interior Secretary Gale Norton came here Tuesday to push her agenda of burns and forest thinnings as the surest ways to prevent catastrophic forest fires in the future.

Speaking at the annual conference of the National Association of Counties, or NACo, Norton said this summer's fires in the drought-ridden West are more proof of the failure of a century's worth of thinking on forests: To suppress any and all fires.

"For a century we've been suppressing fires," Norton said. "We need to look at the root causes."

She said suppression of fires has led to overly dense forests where tree diseases flourish.

"More and more this is what forests look like today: dense, diseased, dying. These are tinderboxes waiting to explode," Norton told the assembly after signing a "memorandum of agreement" with the association's president, President Javier Gonzales.

The Interior Department is working on legislation that would allow local governments, not-for-profit organizations and businesses to take over stewardship of public lands.

NACo praised Norton's policy platform, saying it would allow towns and counties living near potentially explosive forests to have a say in how to thwart future fires.

"For communities to be successful the government must involve the people," Gonzales said.

Some environmental groups view such contracts as ways to give timber companies a license to harvest areas that should remain untouched.

"As long as stewardship contracts mask efforts by timber companies to log areas that should not be commercially logged, it's a bad policy," said Jane Danowitz, director of the Heritage Forest Campaign, a coalition of environmental and civic groups.

The group favors selective thinning of forests, especially around areas where people live.

Danowitz charged that Norton and President Bush's administration have "stoked the fires" by blaming the devastating fires in the West on environmentalists' attempts to protect forests from being thinned.

"(Norton) is right that fire policy needs to be addressed, but finger pointing at certain constituencies is not the solution - and the administration has done that," Danowitz said. "It's a complex problem, it needs real leadership from the administration, not rhetoric."

When asked about the opposition she faces from environmentalists, Norton said: "I think we are seeing more and more agreement that we need to manage the forests better."

The debate over forest management seems to have come to the fore since this summer's outbreak of large fires across the parched West.

About 3.3 million acres have burned so far, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, more than double the 10-year average.

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On the Net:

Department of the Interior: http://www.doi.gov/

National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov

Heritage Forest Campaign: http://www.ourforests.org/
 

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