In northern Arizona, along the north and south rims of the Grand Canyon, the National Park Service is considering the unthinkable: logging in a National Park. Federal law prohibits logging in National Parks, but the risk of catastrophic fire has become so desperate the Park Service wants to do it anyway— and in its decision it has the support of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, perhaps the nation’s most influential environmentalist.

“This experiment (in cutting trees) is an attempt to learn how to return the forests to their natural, healthy state and eliminate the danger of catastrophic fire,” Secretary Babbitt said in a recent interview with Arizona Republic  writer, Steve Yozwiak.

“This is a science experiment,” explains Grand Canyon Park Superintendent, Rob Arnberger. “It is not an effort by the National Park Service to start logging practices in national parks.”

Maybe not, but the fact the Park Service would even consider logging underscores the seriousness of the forest health problem along the Grand Canyon rim. The plan has shocked “Zero Cut” proponents, who fear the Grand Canyon decision will set a precedent for logging in other parks, and might well undermine their campaign to ban harvesting in National Forests. If conducted, the $900,000 Grand Canyon test will involve mechanical thinning on an 80-acre tract. So dense is the stand to be thinned that the Park Service estimates 16,000 trees will have to be removed. “We want to do everything we can to save the oldest trees,” explains Park Service scientist Bob Winfree. Mortality in the oldest trees is on the rise, both inside the Park and in the neighboring Kaibab and Coconino National Forests. Weakened by disease and related stress, they are losing out to fir in the battle for soil nutrients and moisture.

Apart from ecological calamity, milling capacity—or the lack of it—is the most vexing problem facing Southwest environmentalists who favor forest restoration. Many of the region’s largest companies went out of business when the National Forest timber sale program collapsed. In the entire four-state region—Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado—only three of 34 surviving sawmills possess the technology needed to process small logs in volume. The rest are very small and many still use circle saws, a technology unsuitable for small log milling. In the course of this investigation, not a single mill in the four-state region expressed interest in investing in small log technology.

“A new small log mill would cost us at least $10 million,” one mill manager estimated. “We would not make such an investment without a legally binding 20- year timber contract. Besides, we already buy enough timber from state and private landowners to run profitably.”

Unless small log markets can be found, forest restoration cannot pay for itself without taxpayer subsidy. Environmentalists and fiscal conservatives have both been ardent critics of so-called “below cost” timber sales. One environmental group, the Grand Canyon Trust, is actively searching for markets for small logs removed from a pilot thinning project in the Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff. “If we are going to get (the trees) out of the woods, we’ve got to find a way to use (the lumber). Otherwise, you just can’t come up with enough money to pay people to pull it out,” Trust Program Director Brad Ack told the Arizona Republic . The Trust is one of 18 groups involved in the Grand Canyon Forest Partnership, a publicprivate pilot project that hopes to fire proof at risk forests on the perimeter of Flagstaff. Apart from reducing the looming risk of a firestorm that could easily sweep through downtown Flagstaff, the group hopes to protect the San Francisco Peaks, a spectacular range that rises above the community.

“The peaks are the signature of Flagstaff,” Mr. Ack told the Republic . And if that was all just one big blackened place, this town’s economy would really suffer.”

The Trust’s search for markets is not going well. Log prices plummeted when Asia’s economy collapsed, so even distant mills capable of milling small logs aren’t buying right now. Worse yet, Stone Container recently converted its Arizona’s pulp mill to recycled fiber operation, so no market remains for the smallest and poorest quality wood. Rumors persisted that another firm may construct a pulp mill in the area, but none of the West’s largest companies will confirm such a plan.

“Until there is strong, broadbased community support, we would not be interested,” reported a spokesman for an Idaho concern that has pioneered several leading edge technologies that utilize small logs. The political process has some distance to go before it catches up with technology.”

Indeed, few outside scientific circles seem aware that the forest monitoring technologies needed to proceed with forest restoration are already being used by most of the West’s major private forest landowners. Among the latest advancements: computer simulation models that allow scientists and foresters to test hundreds of different thinning, reforestation and restoration techniques— or combinations of techniques— to see which ones best resemble historic patterns of natural disturbance. “What if we do this?” Questions that 20 years ago could only have been answered with a chainsaw can now be answered using desktop computers.

The milling technology needed in the Southwest is also in use elsewhere in the West. Several companies operating in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and California could handle most of the small logs organizations like the Grand Canyon. Trust are trying to market. But transportation costs are prohibitive, and, until the political climate improves, it is unlikely any of these technologically advanced companies would consider investments in the Southwest. Moreover, of the West’s remaining sawmills most have—of necessity—significantly reduced their dependence on federal timber. Few now obtain more than 25 percent of their logs from federal sources. Since 1990, many that for generations bought only federal timber have purchased timberland and hired forestry staffs. All look to the day when they will not need to buy any federal timber.

“It takes millions of dollars in investment capital to be competitive in this business today,” one mill owner told us. “Lending institutions want to know that your wood sources are reliable. We still hope to buy a little federal timber now and then to keep our sources of supply in balance, but I don’t know anyone in this business who still counts on the federal government to sell timber.”

Meanwhile, old timers in the Forest Service, those who know first-hand what big fires can do, privately await “a teaching event”— code for the million-acre fire they believe to be inevitable. When it comes, CNN will provide viewers with a ringside seat for “The Big Show.” Smoke will fill western skies, borate bombers will swoop down mountain ridges, yellow-jacketed firefighters will take their places on fire lines, homes will be evacuated and millions of taxpayer dollars will again pour into rural staging areas that will be glad for the business. Hundreds of thousands of acres of wildlife habitat will be incinerated in firestorms, 400-year-old ponderosas will explode like roman candles, creeks will run black with ash and mud, fish will suffocate, birds will be fried alive and terrified deer will race by—on fire. And someone on the fire line will likely go home in a body bag. “Zero Cut” in real time.

There must be a better way to manage the West’s National Forests than this.