Here's a prediction: When and if the full facts of past forest management disputes involving a number of well-known environmental groups become known, the public will rise up and demand immediate action. The truth is that until the current devastating Front Range fire managed to consume more than 80,000 acres between Lake George and the outskirts of Denver, time appeared to be on the side of the environmental groups. These groups could and did file elaborate challenges to U.S. and state Forest Service decisions intended to reduce fire risks along the Front Range. They specifically resisted the Upper South Platte Watershed Protection and Restoration Project (an area now burning) by advancing fraudulent and contradictory arguments intended either to delay the restoration project or to minimize, if not nullify, its promised benefits. Reducing the fire risk along the Front Range is not exactly a new idea. In 1992, the annual Forest Service report for the Rocky Mountain Region included this prophetic comment: "About 60 percent of the region is forested land. Following decades of suppressed natural fire, many forested ecosystems have reached a mature stage where insect infestation and catastrophic fire are the next likely events." In 1996, following the devastating Buffalo Creek Fire, state and federal forest officials warned of a "red zone" from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins. This zone is characterized by a high fire risk produced through high-density housing development within forested areas. The dire warnings have mostly gone unnoticed - until now. The Forest Service has pressed ahead with plans such as those affecting the South Platte watershed (the Pike-San Isabel National Forest) but has found itself locked in an ongoing battle with environmental groups that want to dictate how, when and where the forests can be touched. The struggle over the South Platte project has so far featured two environmental challenges to Forest Service decisions filed by seven environmental groups: the American Lands Alliance; Aspen Wilderness Workshop; Center for Native Ecosystems; Colorado Wild; Upper Arkansas-South Platte Project; The Wilderness Society; and the Wildlands Center for Preventing Roads. The groups have advanced a bewildering number of claims about the treatment of roadless versus roaded areas, the size of trees to be cut and removed, whether or not clearing should be created and, of course, whether the logging industry should be allowed to benefit in any way. David L. Hessel, the staff forester at the Colorado Forest Service, has reviewed the contents of these appeals and has made a couple of devastating points: The management program is not, as the environmental groups claim, a "logging project." It is instead an effort to return the forest to pre-settlement conditions and reduce the risk of fire. The fact that trees have to be removed to reduce the risk of fire doesn't make it a project intended to enrich the logging industry. The environmental groups advance opposite and contradictory arguments. They oppose the cost of thinning the forest and also oppose any timber sales that would offset that cost. What other options are there, assuming the forest must be thinned? Up until this month, the tactics of dither and delay seemed to be working in favor of the environmental groups. Either they would be able to pressure the Forest Service into a very restrictive plan which limited the actual impact on the forested areas, or they would delay the process through further appeals and negotiation. Either outcome could be viewed as a victory. Now that the forest is on fire, they are apparently flirting with a new claim, namely that in the extreme conditions that exist today, fire may destroy both the thinned and unthinned acreage. The implication of this view is, of course, that thinning doesn't pay. This argument is also a canard. There is already abundant evidence that managed forest is more resistant to fire than the unmanaged. The urgent issue for the public is how long it will tolerate delays in implementing sound forest-management plans, especially when those delays serve only the narrowest of political interests. Al Knight ( ) is a member of the Denver Post editorial board. His column appears Wednesday and Sunday.