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Pioneer Editorial: Preventing wildfires for healthy forest

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Pioneer Editorial: Preventing wildfires for healthy forest
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

Given the proper weather conditions hold out, it appeared Saturday that the mas-sive Boundary Waters Canoe Area wildfire might be headed the right way. Firefighting officials said that for the first time, the fire was 10 percent contained, and that it has tremendously slowed in recent days.

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The fire started July 14 most likely by a lightening strike, and voraciously grew in the opening days to now reach 50 square miles -- about 39 square miles of land. Luckily, it has mostly involved wilderness areas and homes and structures have been unaffected.

Such a wildfire has been a fear since 1999, when a July 4 storm caused a blowdown of record proportions within the BWCA. Millions of trees remain strewed across the forest floor, much of it untouchable as it involves a federal wilderness area carrying restrictions on mechanized equipment. In other words, loggers with skidders or even chain saws are prohibited from entering and cleaning up the blowdown.

The tinderbox has sat since. The U.S. Forest Service, however, has tried to help with prescribed burns in some of the blowdown area, but not without some resistance from environmentalist groups.

Still, we see now even the affect of those efforts. The slow growth of the wildfire in recent days has been attributed to driving it toward the prescribed burn areas where fuel is exhausted, as well as the favorable weather conditions and the number of people fighting the fire.

The current wildfire proves the need of an active plan to limit potential hazards of wildfire, such as allowing blowdowns to be handled in the first place. Former Sen. Rod Grams, R-Minn., knows that and on Saturday called upon U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns to allow firefighters to use mechanized equipment on the ground to work the fire. Granted, Grams is now a candidate for 8th District U.S. House, but as a former congressman and senator, he knows the system.

He knows that under federal law, only the secretary can authorize the use of mechanized equipment in a "Wilderness Area." Doing so before, "we could have had the blowdown situation well under control years ago."

While he notes his fall opponent, DFL U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, has been silent, we note that the long-term Democrat has supported President Bush's Healthy Forests initiative in voting in 2003 for the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which calls for measures to reduce the threat of destructive wildfires while upholding environmental standards and encouraging early public input during review and planning processes.

We want to preserve pristine areas of wilderness, but we must also be given the tools to prevent destruction of those wildernesses by wildfire.

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