LOS PADRES NATIONAL FOREST, Calif. -- In a shady hollow deep in the heart of this coastal forest, John Bradford stops at the end of a driveway. The small clapboard house to which it leads -- one of about 20 temporary residences in the Santa Lucia summer home community -- is lucky to be standing.
Last June, a fire that began at a campground about a mile to the west spread eastward, burning around -- but not through -- the summer home tract. "It was like an island -- fire pushed around the edges, but stayed clear of here," said Bradford, district ranger for the forest's Monterey District.
He credits the tract's largely unscathed condition -- the fire scorched only a single wall -- to a collaborative effort between homeowners and the Forest Service to remove brush and thin crowded trees around the homes last winter. "If we hadn't cleaned this up, we probably wouldn't have seen anything left," Bradford said.
It is this kind of success story that Forest Service officials hold up as testament to the effectiveness of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, signed into law five years ago next month. But as one of the country's most massive wildfire seasons comes to an end, a close look at a half-decade of the law in action reveals a mixed record of both successes and failures.
The law, proposed by the Bush administration to strengthen and expand the Healthy Forests Initiative, launched the previous year, was intended to make it easier for the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to thin hazardous fuels that had built up over a century of fire suppression in fire-adapted ecosystems, especially near communities. It did so by streamlining environmental reviews of thinning projects, placing limits on administrative appeals and judicial review and prioritizing fuel treatments to target areas near communities (Land Letter, Dec. 4, 2003).
The act, which set a goal of thinning 20 million acres, also authorized Congress to allocate up to $760 million to federal land management agencies to implement the act. About half those funds were to be used for reducing fuels adjacent to developed areas.
When President Bush signed the act into law Dec. 4, 2003, supporters saw it as a crucial tool to expedite hazardous fuels reduction projects and protect communities in the "wildland-urban interface," while critics viewed it as a ruse for covertly reviving the commercial logging industry. Five years later, it appears that neither prediction came true, forest policy experts say.
"People expected it to open up more lands to federal management or rape and pillage the land," said Jay Jensen, executive director of the Council of Western State Foresters in Denver, Colo. "Well, neither one of those came to be."
Whether the act is accomplishing its goal of reducing hazardous fuels is the subject of dispute. So far, about 213,000 acres of forest land have been treated nationwide under HFRA authorities -- far less than the 20 million acres authorized for expedited thinning under the act. Meanwhile, wildfires have burned 5 million acres this year -- 1.5 million more acres than burned in 2003, the year the act was passed. The worst fire seasons of the last eight years were in 2006 and 2007, with 9.1 million acres and 9.4 million acres burned, respectively.
"I think the act helped some, but probably not as much as people thought it would," said Dale Bosworth, who oversaw implementation of the act as chief of the Forest Service before retiring in February. "It was a good sort of first step, but a lot of the work that's gotten done would have gotten done anyway."
Environmental advocates -- many of whom skewered the law when it was passed in 2003 -- say HFRA has largely been ineffective.
"I don't think it was nearly the silver bullet they thought it would be," said Bryan Bird, who works on forest conservation issues for New Mexico-based WildEarth Guardians.
"Two hundred thousand acres -- that's a pretty paltry figure," added Matthew Koehler, executive director of the WildWest Institute in Montana, an environmental group. "We've still had fires, we've still lost homes."
Yet Forest Service officials say that while thousands of acres remain at risk, communities near federal lands are better defended against wildfire now than they were half a decade ago.
Mark Rey, who oversees the Forest Service as the Department of Agriculture's undersecretary for natural resources and the environment, said HFRA should be considered in the context of the Healthy Forests Initiative. By that measure, a total of about 26 million acres of hazardous fuels have been treated, using both HFRA and HFI authorities -- mostly in the wildland-urban interface, he said. That amounts to about one-third of the 80 million to 90 million acres that are in the worst shape, Rey said.
And thinning works, Rey added. During a flyover last summer of the wildfires burning along California's central coast, including the fire that skirted the Santa Lucia summer home tract in Los Padres National Forest, Rey said thinning done under HFRA helped alter fire behavior, reducing the risk to both communities and firefighters. "The fire laid down when it hit those treated areas," he said.
Jensen said the administration is overstating the act's usefulness. It is misleading to lump all hazardous fuel treatments together to assess the success of HFRA, since only a fraction of those projects have been carried out under the act's authorities, he said. Most hazardous fuel reduction projects have been carried out under HFI, raising the question of whether the HFRA was necessary in the first place, critics suggest.
"There is an increase, but to attribute that to the authorities under HFRA is not entirely accurate, because a lot of that would have happened anyhow," Jensen said, adding that HFRA "has not lived up to expectations."
That is partly because of insufficient funding, Jensen and others said.
Last year, Senate Forest Subcommittee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) called HFRA a failure, citing a lack of money as the culprit.
While the bill authorizes $760 million annually for hazardous fuels reduction, the Bush administration and Congress have allocated less than $300 million each year (E&E Daily, Dec. 14, 2007).
"It has not allowed the country to get ahead of the problem," Wyden said at the hearing.
Rey said that between HFRA and HFI, more funding is going toward hazardous fuel treatments than ever before. "People can argue whether there's been enough money for this or not, but what's indisputable is we've asked for more money for fuel treatments than any other administration in the history of the Republic."
But Rey said it is unrealistic to expect the federal government to be able to stop unusually hot-burning wildfires from occurring.
"I remember after HFRA was enacted, some people said, 'Great, now there won't be any more forest fire,'" Rey said. "I had to say, 'Wait a minute -- we didn't amend the laws of nature, we amended how we address forest fire.' As long as we have lightning, and as long as we have people, we're going to have forest fires." HFRA and HFI can only reduce the severity of wildfires, he added.
Thousands of plans
By all accounts, the act's greatest accomplishment has been its encouragement and support for community wildfire protection plans.
"I think those plans went a long way to informing communities and allowing them to reach consensus on what needs to be done, and that has reduced appeals," Rey said. "Most of the projects being developed today are being developed in concert with community wildfire protection plans."
Greg Aplet, a forest ecologist with the Wilderness Society, agreed. "HFRA creates a mechanism and incentive for people to get together and figure out what needs to be done to protect communities," he said. "It's brought people together, and I give it credit for that."
Far more plans are in place now than before the act was passed, Jensen added. "Some plans would have gone forward, but I guarantee you would not see the numbers we're seeing now [without HFRA]," he said. "There are thousands of community wildfire protection plans, and without HFRA, it would be in the dozens."
In a report, the National Association of State Foresters, which keeps tabs on the development of community wildfire protection plans across the country, says the number of communities with such plans increased to 4,762 last year, up from 3,264 in 2006 -- a 46 percent increase. Even so, more than 90 percent of the 44,000 most at-risk communities still do not have community wildfire protection plans in place, according to NASF.
While HFRA encourages the creation of community wildfire protection plans, it only applies to communities that abut federal lands, and most communities in need of protection do not, Aplet noted.
Over the years, environmental groups have challenged some HFRA projects they said focused too much on timber and not enough on hazardous fuels. Koehler points to the Middle East Fork project in the Bitterroot National Forest as an example of how the Forest Service has misused the act to allow logging far from communities. Bird of WildEarth Guardians cites a proposed project the group successfully challenged in the Cibola National Forest south of Albuquerque, N.M., as another instance in which the Forest Service tried to expand thinning beyond the wildland-urban interface.
But Jensen said those kinds of controversies are the exception, not the rule. "Most projects are in line with what was authorized in the act and work toward risk reduction," he said.
Rey said that of the 4.2 million acres of hazardous fuels treated in 2007, about 6 percent involved commercial timber sales.
Bosworth said HFRA has helped get many needed projects off the ground. "I think there are projects that wouldn't have gotten done without HFRA," he said, citing the 2004 White Mountain project in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona, which authorized thinning 150,000 acres of small-diameter ponderosa pines over 10 years, as just one example.
But fuel treatments have to be done on a regular basis to keep the risk of catastrophic wildfire in check, and that takes an ongoing commitment of resources, added Robyn Darbyshire, a forester with the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in Oregon.
"You can't just do it once," Darbyshire said. "You have to maintain those gains."
Rich Fairbanks, a former Forest Service employee who is now the Wilderness Society's fire program associate for California, said the Forest Service should more fully embrace prescribed burning, which is more cost-effective, to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire and maintain healthier forest conditions over the long term.
Whatever the method, clearing out unnaturally dense forests will be increasingly important in the years to come, when climate change is expected to create drier forests and lengthen the wildfire season just as more people move into forested areas, Bosworth added.
The challenges of implementing the act have spurred Congress and the Forest Service to fine-tune HFRA, one of the Bush administration's most high-profile natural resource policy initiatives. Last spring, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) introduced a bill he said would improve the act by granting federal land managers the authority to conduct hazardous fuel treatments beyond the 1.5-mile-wide wildland-urban interface but within areas covered by community wildfire protection plans (E&E Daily, May 13).
And in September, the Forest Service issued a final rule clarifying the appeals process for hazardous fuels reduction projects under the act (Land Letter, Sept. 18).
With Democrat Barack Obama winning the presidential election this week, and Democrats strengthening their majority in Congress, the future of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act lies with the party whose members were among its biggest critics five years ago.
Rey told Congress in May 2004 that it would take about a decade to achieve the hazardous fuel reduction goals laid out in the Healthy Forests Restoration Act (E&E Daily, May 3, 2004). He said in an interview this week that he believes that goal is still achievable -- if the new administration keeps the program on track.
"I think by 2014 there's a pretty good chance this will be up to the 20-million-acre range," Rey said. "That's assuming that our successors fund this as robustly as we have, and make it a priority.
"We can't afford to go back to the days of being lackadaisical," Rey said. "I don't think the public will stand for that."
April Reese writes from Santa Fe, N.M.