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Letter to the editor: woodpeckers and forest fires
Published 5/8/2013 6:00:00 AM
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Ms. Harris' article "Protection law sacrifices human safety" argues that it is illogical for conservation groups to propose an Endangered Species Act listing status for the black-backed woodpecker. As both a casual birdwatcher and environmental professional and educator, this got my attention.

I noticed the repeated use of the adjective 'extremist' to describe conservation groups. Apparently, Ms. Harris deems these groups as 'extremist' for wanting to have the Endangered Species Act applied to the black-backed woodpecker. Ms. Harris tries to convince readers that such an ESA listing would increase the number of firefighter deaths. I think that conclusion is a cargo too heavy for so frail a craft as Ms. Harris'logic.

The black-backed woodpecker apparently depends upon access to burned forests. She tells us there were some 10 million acres of wildfires last year, though gave no analysis of the correlation between the acreage burned and the needs of this species.

Two of Ms. Harris' sources are Capital Press, a weekly newspaper covering farming and ranching in the western United States, and the American Forests Resource Council, a forest industry lobby. The author does not deem either of these as 'extremist.'

Ms. Harris argues that 'extremist' conservation groups are illogical for supporting ESA status for their bird, apparently due to a weakly reasoned link between protecting burned areas and the death of forest firefighters. I suspect that the conservation groups are logically true to their values, as are the lobbyists presumably true to their more commercial values.

Is it logical to call one group 'extremist' for favoring birds over commercial logging opportunities and not call the other 'extremist' for hewing to an opposite set of values? Or is the 'extremist' label just a form of name-calling to be used against those whose values you don't share?

Incident commanders on forest fires balance many factors in deciding how to apply their resources to a given fire. Among their considerations are fire crew safety and the potential utility of allowing some or all of a wildfire to burn, including the value of improvement of habitat and the reduction of fuels. It is hard to see exactly how the ESA listing greatly upsets this system, although it may factor in at the margin.

Could the AFRC's interest have more to do with potential limitations on salvage logging that frequently follows a forest fire than with fire fighter deaths? Ms. Harris does not explore this.

Ms. Harris is laudably concerned about deaths and injuries to forest firefighters. Perhaps we should recognize that, with logging being by some accounts the second most dangerous job in the United States, maximizing forest harvesting possesses its own risks.

Lastly, as an environmental professional and educator, and in an era when public understanding of environmental issues is critical to wise public policy, I am disappointed to see a WSU student present an argument so one-sided.

Joseph K. Vaughan, Ph.D.
Research Associate Professor
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

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