Our View: Fiddling While Colorado Burns

June 12, 2012

Colorado wildfires in 2002 led to changes in federal forest management, but litigation by radical environmental groups has prevented full implementation of the reforms

Coloradans up and down the I-25 and I-70 corridors have become resigned to the fact that every summer we’re just bound to see massive smoke plumes emanating from wildfires consuming our perpetually unhealthy forests.

Year after year, Coloradans of all political stripes from all parts of the state have talked with one another about the tinderbox state of our insect infested and overstocked forests, and the need to log them.

And year after year, Washington politicians fiddle as the seemingly annual slow-motion disaster unfolds.

While some are content throwing up their hands, hoping that someday, someone might find a solution to prevent these massive fires that take human lives and destroy hundreds of thousands of acres in their wake, we want answers from Denver and Washington, D.C.

Recall the dawning of the new era in American politics affectionately known as the Inaguration of President Barack Obama.  Civility, common sense and western values were coming to Washington, D.C. in the form of a new Secretary of the Interior – Ken Salazar – as well as his posse of Coloradans in powerful positions in departments such as Agriculture and Interior that have tremendous sway over the stewardship of natural resources in the Centennial State.

One such appointee was former Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Executive Director Harris Sherman who landed a plush assignment as the assistant secretary in charge of the United States Forest Service.  Having served at DNR under two different governors, with a stint representing Colorado ski areas in between, Sherman is acutely aware of the condition of Colorado’s forests.  From bettle kill to disease to a decimated timber industry in the state, Colorado’s forests and the communities that surround them were understandably optimistic when someone with Sherman’s knowledge landed in D.C.

Fast forward three and a half years and point us to one thing – just one – that Harris Sherman and the rest of the Coloradans with President Obama’s ear have done to prevent wildfires and reinvigorate the timber industry in Colorado.  Sure, Sherman found time to swing by the timber mill on life support in Montrose to make promises, but has he delivered?

Crippling wildfires that spread across the west during President George W. Bush’s first term resulted in passage of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act.  Litigation from environmental groups has, unfortunately, prevented the full implementation of that law – but at least they recognized the problem and put forward a policy idea to address it.

Not only has the Obama Administration been lackadaisical in wildfire prevention and forest management, they are also MIA when it comes to ensuring that we have adequate resources to underwrite the prompt supression of fires once they start.

The White House has also done little to modernize the Forest Service’s aging firefighting aircraft fleet.  As any firefighter will tell you, early response is the key to keeping small fires from being large ones, and an aged fleet of airplanes is a major impediment to that critical public objective.

Sadly, the administration seems less inclined to spend taxpayer dollars on things that the government should do — i.e. fighting forest fires — and far more willing to fork over piles of public cash to entities with whom the government has no legitimate business — i.e. subsidizing politically connected renewable energy companies like Abound and Solyndra.

The High Park Fire has consumed over 40,000 acres and those battling the blaze have achieved just “some containment” as of press time today.  People have died, dreams have been shattered.  And Coloradans far beyond the boundaries of Larimer County can see the devastating plume of smoke hovering over northern Colorado.

Governor John Hickenlooper has shown a willingness to stand up to environmental extremists on the issue of natural gas production and hydraulic fracturing.  As he tours these fires this summer, we certainly hope he develops backbone enough to sit down with Harris Sherman to demand some answers about what it is exactly the United States Forest Service is doing not only to prevent them – but to fulfill the Forest Service’s multiple use mission as an agency.

And if the Governor won’t lead, we hope the Colorado congressional delegation will work across party lines to end the “analysis paralysis” that hamstrings land managers, and prevents them from working in concert with state officials and private landowners to restore the health of our beleaguered forests.

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