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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.
"It's kind of like living in a floodplain," Mannchen says. "If you live in an area that burns naturally, well, you take a certain risk. You have a responsibility to keep your yard and house fireproofed. But the Forest Service does not focus on that."
Mannchen also questions the Forest Service's motives for using fire and logging to prevent blights by the southern pine beetle. The beetle naturally thins out pine trees, enabling hardwoods to inhabit Southern forests. "The pine beetle is not a bad guy," he says, "unless you're focused on harvesting pine logs."
Although logging was once widespread in Sam Houston, it has been minimal for years. During the 1970s, foresters were authorized to harvest 100-acre parcels. By the 1980s, most logging had been reduced to thinning projects and the yearly cutting of about 50 acres. More recently, a glut of private wood flooded the market, and combined with recycling programs, reduced the price of pine logs. Half as many timber companies now bid on the logging projects.
Yet the Forest Service still seems to manage Sam Houston for logging. The majority of land consists of widely spaced pines, most of them the same age. One benefit of the approach is improved access for logging trucks.
Mannchen says the Forest Service should change its approach. Sam Houston records about a million visits every year, and not many of them are by loggers. He says that returning the forest to its natural, diverse state would be more attractive, better for wildlife and still open to limited logging.
Bigler says the Sierra Club has a point. But there's a problem: one little woodpecker and the mighty Endangered Species Act.
The red-cockaded woodpecker, a black and white bird with two stripes of red behind its eyes, loves pine trees. It once inhabited soft trunks in mature pine stands across much of the Southeast, but clear-cutting removed the older, widely spaced trees, and the woodpecker nearly disappeared. It became an endangered species in 1970, and the Sierra Club began a lengthy legal battle in the late 1980s aimed at slowing its decline.
At the time, timber companies called the lawsuit their death knoll. Ironically, Mannchen says, it has become their best friend.
"We are obviously for the woodpecker," he says. However, Mannchen argues that the Forest Service now uses that bird as an excuse to manage its habitat "as commercial pine forest."
Nearly three quarters of the forest is now devoted to the woodpecker. As the Forest Service interprets it, this means promoting widely spaced pines, suppressing the pine beetle and removing brush and hardwoods -- much the same conditions maintained on pine plantations.
"As long as that bird is there," Bigler says, "we are going to have to provide the open understory, and that is what is pushing a lot of this."
The pine management also promotes other wildlife such as deer and wild turkeys, he adds, which benefit hunters.
Timber companies make money off the arrangement by removing pines in thinning projects. And in the future, rangers could allow more intensive logging on mature parcels.
Mannchen wants the Forest Service to stop creating artificial woodpecker habitat and to restore the forest to its former diversity. "We could have more natural ecosystems," he says, "and the woodpecker would still have wonderful habitat to live in."
But now that the Healthy Forests Initiative is curbing public input, he doubts change will happen without more lawsuits.
"It's a sad way to deal with the public when you're basically saying, 'Sue me,' " he says. "And that's what we think is happening."