By Tom Still

MADISON – Wildfires in California are once again scorching hundreds of square miles, consuming homes by the block and forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee for safety.

It doesn’t have to happen this way.

Sure, the weather in California has been extremely dry, the terrain makes fighting fires treacherous once they start, and people have a tendency to cluster just beyond the shadow of the forest canopy, sometimes courting danger like moths drawn to a flame.

But none of this changes the fact that command-and-control government policies, zealously guarded an environmental crowd that has repeatedly confused preservation with sound forestry management, helped spark the fires as surely as an unwatched campfire.

As Congress is belatedly beginning to understand, the time has come to reclaim our national forests and wilderness areas from those who would smother them to death. Forests that look wild and untamed to the backpacking visitor appear sick and even frightening to federal foresters, who know the trees are too crowded, the ground is too brushy and the fire lanes too inaccessible.

The United States is home to about 297,000 or so square miles (190 million acres) of federal forest and rangeland. That’s an area equivalent in size to Texas, or 12 percent of the nation. This incredible resource has always been – and forever will be – susceptible to fire, natural as well as manmade. But the fire patterns of the last decade or more represent a worrying change: There have been more fires that are more devastating, harder to fight, and more costly to people and the environment.

Instead of managing our forest wisely, we have allowed wildfires to do the job for us. The fruits of benign neglect are scarred landscapes, obliterated forest habitat, streams and rivers clogged with silt, destroyed homes and wasted tax dollars. If an outside enemy had forced this policy upon us, we would call it bioterrorism.

These fires are not simply a product of drought, lightning strikes and bad luck. They are the logical result of a century of aggressive fire suppression, coupled with mass build-ups of dense undergrowth that cause forest conditions to deteriorate to an unnatural state.

“After many years of fire suppression, much of America’s national forests have tree densities 10 to 20 times natural levels,” the Izaak Walton League wrote in its winter 2003 journal. “These heavy fuel loads create potential for catastrophic fires…”

These conditions have made our forests – whether in California or Wisconsin – weaker. They are more susceptible to disease and insect infestations, and less likely to support a healthy wildlife mix. Overcrowding stresses trees, blocks sunlight and reduce water and nutrients. And, as evidenced by this fall’s fires in California, they can turn an ordinary fire into an inferno.

An unavoidable truth has emerged: To conserve and nurture a forest, you must sometimes remove a few trees.

Federal efforts to fund a Forest Service thinning program will help, but fuel reduction in forests is a costly proposition for taxpayers alone. Clearing brush and small trees, which must be done by hand, typically costs more than $500 per acre. Only with private action and incentives can the job be done in a timely and cost-effective manner.

Market-based incentives can involve landowners and loggers in the fight to save the forests. So can technology and a commitment to creating jobs and opportunity. That is already underway in places such as California’s Stevenson Ranch and Tejon Ranch, in Wallowa County, Ore., in the Swan Valley of Montana, and in the laboratories of Wisconsin.

At the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, researchers are finding ways to use small-diameter trees in construction; use engineered wood products in wood-frame homebuilding; combine wood fiber with recycled plastics to create composite materials used in windows and doors, signs, roofing, exterior siding and automotive parts; use wood fibers to make inexpensive fibers for streams polluted by mines or farms; and use waste-wood chips or sawdust as fuel to generate electricity.

The Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, to be funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, will focus on using wood waste and other plant materials to create cellulosic ethanol. The UW-Madison, in partnership with Michigan State University and others, was awarded a $125-million grant to conduct that research over the next five years.

All of these projects could expand the market for small trees and small forest materials. It would encourage ecologically sound forest thinning, reduce the risk of catastrophic fires and make forests less disease-prone. It would also help private landowners generate income from their forest land – and resist the temptation to fragment forest areas for development.

If a profitable use can be found for material that is now choking our forests, everyone wins – including the taxpayer, who will pay less to get the job done and will actually benefit from the products.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. This column is adapted from a chapter in “Hands-On Environmentalism,” a book he co-authored with Dr. Brent Haglund of the Sand County Foundation. “Hands-On Environmentalism” was published by Encounter Books, New York.