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Chainsaws and sawbucks

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Bad news for Michigan's trees and the people who enjoy them: A couple of state Republicans announced they want to extend President George W. Bush’s "Healthy Forests" initiative to the Wolverine State. As with most Bush plans, envision the opposite of what the name promises and you'll be pretty close to the actual effect.

House Speaker Rick Johnson, R-LeRoy, and state Rep. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, announced the plan, "Michigan Healthy Forests for the 21st Century," while touring the Upper Peninsula last week. They say their plan would help create jobs and protect state forests by focusing on timbering, recreation and economic uses.

Specifics of the state forestry plan are yet to be announced, but the expectation that it will be modeled on the federal initiative gives us pause. Bush’s forest plan passed the House; the Senate is expected to vote on it this month. It’s billed as a method to discourage the rampant forest fires that have plagued the West in recent years. Responsibility for thinning overgrowth is left to those eager beavers in the timber industry. It would also allow federal agencies to make quicker, quieter decisions about what’s to be cut, where, when and by whom. The White House stated the initiative will "allow contractors to keep wood products in exchange for the service of thinning trees and brush and removing dead wood."

Environmentalists, not surprisingly, are raising their eyebrows. A federal amendment that would have prioritized areas to be thinned, starting with overgrown forests near urban areas, was shot down.

The whole shebang, federal and state, could have a great impact on Michigan, 51 percent of which is forested. Of the state's 19 million acres of timberland, 4 million are owned by the state, making Michigan’s the largest state forest system in the country. Another 3 million acres are owned by the feds.

Anne Woiwode, director of the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club, is one of many who’s concerned about Johnson’s announcement. The state already lags behind others in progressive forest conservation and management, she says. Since the 1970s, the state has managed its forests for economic interests first.

"The timber industry, and some of the game interests, have pretty much put forth the idea that the only healthy forest is one heavily managed for timber production or for a certain game species," Woiwode says.

That Republican leaders are using Bush’s initiative to take Michigan forest management further into the past "is absolutely crazy," she says. "They’re playing off what the Bush administration is doing, which is to use the exact opposite in words to describe what they are doing.

"They used ‘Clear Skies’ to justify polluting the air, now they’re using ‘Healthy Forests’ to destroy the forests."

Looking for the positive, Woiwode says this is a "critical opportunity" for all who care about the forest to make their voices heard. Johnson is expected to hold hearings on the "Healthy Forest" plan for Michigan, and Woiwode hopes folks show up to lobby for greenery over greenbacks.

"Because the people who want to cut the forests down or manage them for deer population are not staying quiet. They will be there, making their voices loud and clear. It’s the people who enjoy the quiet places, who appreciate the forest because of its natural characteristics, and people who value the environment who so often stay home," she says.

Those of you who want to know more can contact the Sierra Club at 517-484-2372 or visit its Web site at michigan.sierraclub.org.

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