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January 19, 1999

If a Tree Burns in the Forest...

(will anyone hear it scream?)

by Woody Justice

On December 4, 1998, Smokey the Bear's bane flared up in Alabama's Cheaha Wilderness Area in the Talladega National Forest. Some person or persons unknown deliberately set fire to one of only two federally protected wilderness areas in the state. A total of 3,108 out of 7,400 acres were burned in the southern Appalachian foothills -- 42 percent of the entire area. According to the US Forest Service, the arson was perpetrated by people experienced in the effects of woodland fires on timber and forests. Fires were set in twenty different places along a closed road in the forest during a dry period, placed such that the conflagration would race up the mountainside into the heart of the wilderness.

The blaze was finally brought under control by fire-fighting crews from here and other states at a cost of nearly half a million dollars. While the USFS was fighting this fire, another was started in the Horn Mountain area of the TNF to the southwest of Cheaha. This fire, in an area proposed for designation as a scenic wilderness by a number of environmental groups, was quickly brought under control.

Representatives of Wild South, a grassroots coalition of environmental nonprofit groups working on protecting the public lands, hiked thirteen miles through the wilderness area surveying the fire damage. They found all the groundcover scorched and some areas with fifty percent or more of the trees dead. About 2,000 acres outside the wilderness area also burned.

Apologists for destruction of natural areas often point to "similar" measures taken by Native Americans. Woodland Indians in Alabama did in fact burn forests to maintain areas of open pasture. The difference is that such management was minor in the face of expanses of unspoiled wilderness. Modern society converts vast interconnected regions and leaves little untouched between. As if enough natural areas were not legally corrupted, the few remaining places are destroyed out of spite or for personal gratification.

This example is also far beyond those fires set by chance and Mother Nature or even the "prescribed burns" used by USFS forest managers to mimic natural cycles. Humans have finally learned that Smokey's maxim of preventing all forest fires leads to a dangerous accumulation of combustible debris. The excess fuel build-up maintains more intense fires that kill standing vegetation and damage the soil matrix that is a requisite part of a healthy forest. When that happens, microbial life is destroyed and the organic content of the forest floor is burned away. The sterile soils remain bare and open to erosion for a long time, and recovery is slow or nonexistent. After a natural fire event, the groundcover quickly grows back and the root network holds soil in place. Some tree species, such as Longleaf Pine, actually require brief periodic fires for optimal growth.

What reasons would someone have for torching a natural forest? As mentioned above, some humans wish to limit any more wilderness set-asides where resource extraction and motorized uses are prohibited. People who have lived in an area sometimes assume a proprietary claim on nearby public lands for their own personal use and take offense when restrictions are threatened. And believe it or not, some "sportsmen" set fires in order to gun down game species that flee ahead of the flames.

Across the nation a growing arson industry counts on "salvage logging" of standing trees killed by fire in National Forests. Salvage logging operations are exempt from public review and environmental oversight. Congressional action allows this "emergency" harvest so that the trees are not "wasted" by falling to the ground and rotting away with no human benefit derived from them. Absurdly, such a restoration of organic matter and nutrients is exactly what a fire- damaged forest needs.

WildLaw, the legal arm of Wild South, announced a $20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons who set the fire. This is in addition to the $5,000 offered by the USFS. Executive Director Ray Vaughn announced the reward and WildLaw's intentions to "bring these goons to justice and see that they spend the maximum time in federal prison for these outrageous crimes against Alabama's last wild public lands." Parties with information about this crime can contact WildLaw at 334-265-6529, or by e-mail at All information received on this matter will be immediately turned over to Forest Service investigators.

A coalition of public lands defense groups in the south, Wild South is an incorporated non-profit organization that operates a website dedicated to bringing together the internet resources of all its member groups and giving activists the tools they need to work on National Forest protection anywhere. It is a project of Wild Alabama (publisher of the renowned Wild Alabama magazine), WildLaw, and regional grassroots environmental advocacy groups Appalachian Voices, Heartwood and the Biodiversity Legal Foundation.

WildLaw, "a private attorney general's office working for the public," is a watchdog group that reviews permit decisions and engages in litigation on behalf of citizens and environmental groups. WildLaw also has an internet presence where it maintains a self-help section providing the basics of national environmental regulations and Forest Service timber sale appeals. Their website has been expanded to contain in-depth and detailed self-help information on the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the National Fisheries Management Act (NFMA), wetlands regulations, environmental justice issues, how to look up laws, how to find a lawyer, and EPA guidance documents on underground storage tanks, hazardous waste, penalty assessment and more.

Future expansion of Wild South includes plans to publish an educational primer on National Forests and to coordinate the southern region's forest-watch and monitoring efforts. Through WildLaw, Wild South will work to train forest- watch activists and coordinate their work so that destructive timber sales throughout the entire South can be challenged, appealed and litigated.

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