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In the Forests' Favor

Cooler, wetter weather is taking a hand in quelling some of the West's many forest fires. There's no better short-term solution to the problem.

Long-term solutions involve good forest management, and the region's governors have made a useful start in that direction. They recently agreed, in consultation with federal agencies that oversee most Western forests, to a 10-year plan of fire prevention. The stress on prevention is itself a step forward, after decades of concentrating on stopping fires once they start.

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The governors' plan emphasizes thinning millions of acres of overgrown forest, clogged with underbrush and small trees. Such conditions invite super-hot burns that reach into the crowns of larger trees.

The thinning will require extensive use of publicly paid work crews, logging-company participation where appropriate, and careful use of prescribed burns. The latter can be controversial, because they've occasionally been out of control. But the involvement of commercial loggers will likely generate the most heat.

Environmentalists are skeptical that loggers will confine themselves to smaller trees with lower market value. Yet the governors have specified that older, larger trees would be spared. Someone will have to be watching.

Follow-through will be all important. State and federal funding will have to expand to underwrite this project. The clearing and thinning will probably focus, at least initially, on areas nearest human dwellings. It can't start too soon. It's estimated that some 39 million acres of national forests in the West could be subject to catastrophic fires.