By Stephani L. Miller. Nearly 6 million acres of national forestland in the West have been incinerated this past summer, reportedly twice the amount that burns in an average summer fire season. These heavy losses have served to accelerate the debate over the best way to manage forests between lumber companies, environmentalists, and the federal government. Lumber companies such as Boise Cascade and Roseburg Forest Products, among others, face the risk of supply shortages from out-of-control fires; some environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, worry that "effective forest management" by the government would lead to destruction of habitat; and the U.S. Forest Service has had its collective hands tied by litigation and administrative appeals that seek to prevent its management plans.

In August, President Bush stepped in with a plan to decrease the future risk of large-scale wildfires. His "Healthy Forests" initiative addresses the need to clear underbrush and thin trees from forestlands to reduce the available fuel for fires. The plan calls for this to happen not just along the edges, where communities are located, but also deeper in the forests, where no access roads have been built.

The president's plan would encourage lumber companies to begin thinning projects on public lands by allowing them the right to sell the wood they harvest.

Some environmental groups have expressed concerns that thinning in deeper parts of public forestlands will lead to the destruction of hundred-year-old trees and that accessing these wilderness areas will destroy critical habitat. Some groups have even said that the president's plan would hand over national wildernesses to the whims of lumber companies while it ignores the needs of communities along the edges of forests.

However, some lumber companies, such as Weyerhaeuser, see little value in harvesting on public lands, because the wood taken is not usually of the same quality as that cultivated on their own lands. "Weyerhaeuser focuses on supplying higher grade lumber, trees that are grown specifically to meet specific customer needs," says Bruce Amundeson of Weyerhaeuser. "We do not harvest on public lands, so Bush's plan has no effect on us."

Many lumber companies look at the initiative as a positive step toward managing the nation's forests and maintaining ecological health. They feel the Forest Service's enforced inability to manage public lands effectively in the past several years has contributed to the risk of larger fires and more of them. Fires on poorly-managed public lands can spread quickly to adjoining privately owned lands, the source of some worry for lumber companies.

Boise Cascade's chief forester Ken Cummings says, "Our land ownership is mixed. The government owns every other mile, and fire doesn't respect property lines."

More balanced forest management practices are favored by many in the forestry profession--educators and industry professionals alike. While conservation and protection of wilderness areas is important, they recognize, effective forest management--including thinning--of these areas will reduce the risk of large-scale fires without putting too great a strain on the local ecology.

"Mother Nature has a different prescription [for healthy forests] than we do," Cummings says. "If precautions are not taken to prevent fire, then it's almost inevitable."

Ray Jones, vice president of resources for Roseburg Forest Products, agrees. "Mother Nature will manage if man doesn't, through fire, insects, or disease."

Bob Shaffer, professor of forestry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, says, "We [forestry professionals at Virginia Tech] pretty much agree that a managed forest is a much more healthy forest."

Of the president's forest initiative, Shaffer says, "The U.S. Forest Service and Congress need to look carefully at making this a system in which this agency can do their job and effectively manage the forests of the United States without undue influence from any one group. Right now they're completely hamstrung by the process in which any group can voice a protest against any plans of the Forest Service."

President Bush's Healthy Forests Initiative Will Involve the Following Measures:

* Reducing certain regulatory standards that, according to the Administration, hinder effective forest management.

* Passing legislation that will expedite thinning and restoration projects.

* Authorizing government agencies to contract with lumber companies and others for thinning projects and giving these entities the rights to sell the wood they remove from public lands in exchange for the work performed.

* Limiting the rights of some entities to appeal proposed logging projects on public lands.