DENVER–Colorado’s four Republican congressmen reacted Monday to this year’s devastating wildfire season by introducing a bill to give state and local land managers more control over forest management and wildfire prevention.
Called the Healthy Forest Management Act of 2012, the legislation “increases state control over forest management decisions in high-risk areas” on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management properties, according to a press release.
“By allowing states to play a larger role in addressing this emergency, we can more proactively manage our forests, prevent future destruction from wildfires, and promote a healthy natural environment,” said Congressman Scott Tipton, the bill’s primary sponsor.
The effort comes in the aftermath of the High Park and Waldo Canyon wildfires, described as the two most destructive fires in Colorado history. Those wildfires, along with more a dozen others that have hit the state since March, have been attributed in part to the unhealthy condition of the state’s forests, which have been ravaged by the 15-year-old bark-beetle epidemic.
The bill, which followed a congressional hearing on forest management in May, is cosponsored by Congressmen Mike Coffman, Cory Gardner and Doug Lamborn.
“The damage caused by the recent wildfires in Colorado was no doubt magnified by the beetle-kill epidemic, which provided plenty of fuel for the flames,” said Gardner in a statement supporting the bill. “In order to move forward, it is essential that we better manage the health of our forests.”
The bill allows the governor to instigate fuel-reduction projects in designated “high-risk areas,” even if they fall on federal lands, which make up about 35% of the state. The governor must first consult with the relevant county governments and any affected Indian tribes.
Any proposed projects would be submitted for review Interior or Agriculture secretaries, who would have 60 days to implement the project.
“This bill replaces outdated forest management regulations with smarter, more effective tools to ensure the public’s safety,” said Lamborn. “This bill would give those who live in or near our national forests a greater voice in those plans.”
Calls for culling the state’s tree-choked forests have gained urgency in the aftermath of this year’s wildfire destruction. Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall recently sponsored an amendment to the 2012 Farm Bill to double the funding for the removal of beetle-kill trees.
On Monday, Gov. John Hickenlooper urged the House Agriculture Committee to pass the amended Farm Bill, which includes provisions to encourage commercial logging on beetle-kill forests and allow state foresters to reduce fuels on federal lands.
“[W]e strongly encourage that these proposals remain in the bill, survive any conference committee and are ultimately passed by the full Congress,” said Hickenlooper in a statement.
Those efforts are bound to run into resistance from environmental groups, which have fought tree-thinning and logging projects on public lands for decades, insisting that reducing fuel loads in the backwoods does nothing to reduce fire danger.
Niel Lawrence, forestry project director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, described the Tipton bill as “a not-very-subtle effort to promote logging that won’t save homes, stop bugs or make the forests healthier.”
“It’s a blank check to promote logging across a vast majority of the landscape that will do more harm than good,” said Lawrence.
At the same time, Lawrence acknowledged that the calls for thinning the forests would be tough to counter in the post-wildfire climate.
“It’s difficult to look at the extent of the dead trees and fires if you’re a politician and not say, ‘I’ve got to do something,’” said Lawrence. “But the science says you don’t stop bug epidemics with a chainsaw.”
Anticipating challenges from environmental groups, the bill includes provisions for an expedited appeals process. The legislation would also fast-track projects by suspending the federal requirement for an environmental-impact statement for projects within 500 feet of buildings, power lines or campgrounds.
“This summer has been a wake-up call for Members of Congress,” said Coffman. “[I]t has become clear that Western communities need as many forest management tools as we can give in order to mitigate the risk of out-of-control wildfires.”