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Chris Wilhite, a red-bearded Sierra Club organizer, straps on his mud boots, climbs out of his Dodge Ram and plunges into a leafy gumbo of creek bottom in the Sam Houston National Forest. He tromps beneath ancient water oaks, mossy basswoods and bright redbuds. Spring ferns are unfurling on the ground, and overhead the calls of cardinals, tufted titmice and Carolina wrens weave into song.
It's one of the most beautiful and diverse tracts in the forest, and in a few months, it will burn.
An hour north of Houston, the Sam Houston National Forest is one of ten sites chosen from around the country to implement the Bush administration's Healthy Forests Initiative. The plan was billed as a way to help forest managers prevent catastrophic wildfires by cutting trees and setting controlled fires to remove excess wood. But environmentalists say the program is a cleverly disguised logging concession for the timber industry.
As Wilhite lopes deeper into the forest, he explains how it will look after the fire sweeps through. The younger hardwood trees will burn and die. In their place, fire-tolerant pines will sprout and thrive on the charred forest floor. In a few decades, pines will replace the aging hardwoods, and logging companies -- which cherish pines for their straight trunks -- could harvest the stand for lumber or pulpwood.
"The Healthy Forests Initiative does not create healthy forests," Wilhite says. "It creates healthy pine farms."
Rangers in Sam Houston denied an appeal by the Sierra Club last month to halt the initiative on land known as the Boswell Creek project. Logging contracts for tree thinning will go out for bid this fall. Before the decision was made public, rangers had already burned 2,100 acres, and they will burn up to twice as much every year on a regular cycle. The project will affect nearly 10 percent of the forest's 160,000 acres.
District Ranger Tim Bigler says setting controlled fires is a no-brainer. If he doesn't light them soon, wildfires ignited by lightning or a tossed cigarette could consume surrounding communities. "After 20 years of no burning, you get fires you can't control," he says. "It just gets too hot for outdoor wildfire firefighters to work on It would just be unbearable."
Three small wildfires struck Sam Houston last year, down from 14 in 2000. That year, a single blaze known as the Blackhawk Fire consumed 144 acres, threatening the adjacent Hidden Forest subdivision.
Bigler said nearby developments like Bentwater and the towns of Cleveland, Richards and Huntsville are still at risk. And strong blazes could inundate northern Houston with smoke and ash.
The Forest Service already burns an average of 20,000 acres per year to reduce wildfires. Bigler says the fires and logging are also needed to prevent infestations of southern pine beetles, which prey on dense stands of pine trees and decimated 18,000 acres of the forest in the early 1980s.
But environmentalists say the Boswell Creek project increases tree cutting and burning to unprecedented levels. The project is more than twice as large as anything seen in the forest in 20 years, Wilhite says. And it will entrench an effort to burn the forest more frequently.
The Healthy Forests Initiative has made it easier to push through mammoth fire-reduction projects by streamlining the formerly lengthy review process: Approving such plans once required up to two years of study and public comment; the Boswell Creek project was initially cleared in six months.
"What the Healthy Forests Initiative is doing on this particular project is enabling us to do it a little bit quicker with less cumbersome paperwork," says USDA Forest Service spokesperson Gay Ippolito.
Yet Brandt Mannchen, a Houston Sierra Club member, says authorities ignored ways to accomplish the same goals with less fire and logging -- which could have created a wilder, more natural forest.
The deaf ear from the Forest Service is nothing new. In the past two years, the Sierra Club has challenged roughly 20 smaller projects at Sam Houston without winning any major concessions.
Mannchen says the Healthy Forests Initiative has further shut out environmentalists from the process. "You have no recourse," he says. "There is no way for you to have an impact, because they have already made the decision."
Left to their own devices, forests in southeast Texas don't simply mature and then stay the same. A stand of pines might grow for a hundred years, then die from a blight of southern pine beetle. Hardwoods might mostly replace the pines, until a fire wipes them out. Catastrophe in the forest is natural, Mannchen says, but not the way the Forest Service uses it.
After setting fires this spring, rangers will burn the same parcels on a two- to five-year cycle, an interval suggested in the forest's management plan.
Mannchen says the plan ignores current research. A study conducted recently by Stephen F. Austin State University estimates natural fires strike wet South Texas forests only once every ten to 20 years.
Instead of burning Sam Houston up to six times more often than what's natural, Mannchen suggests rangers adopt less destructive controls. For example, the Forest Service's own fire lab in Missoula, Montana, found that most fire threats to buildings come from brush and trees within a 200-foot perimeter. If rangers helped adjacent landowners fireproof their properties, they could slash wildfire risks by 80 to 90 percent without burning the national forest.