WASHINGTON – Emergency measures are needed on the federal level to clear bug infested and deteriorating tree stands that pose a high risk of sparking wildfires to avoid a repeat of last year’s devastation that burned more than 100,000 acres and killed several people in Colorado.
Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.) says that expanding the authority of agencies like the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to work with state authorities and the local communities affected would go a long way toward restoring forests to a healthier state.
“We can’t overstate the importance of efficiently managing some of these areas and doing it in a responsible way,” said Tipton, who is sponsoring legislation that would address the devastation the bark beetle epidemic and drought are having in the West.
The problem is compounded in Colorado where federal forests are interspersed with state and private property creating a patchwork of ownership and goals that are often at conflict.
Even though the state is responsibly managing it’s forest, it’s at risk from neighboring stands infested with bark beetles on private and federal property, Tipton said. The legislation gives states, counties and tribes a say in how those forests are managed.
Residents are already seeing the benefits of a pilot project in Pagosa Springs to treat at-risk areas, Tipton said.
“The forest looks beautiful, the trees regain their health, ground water goes up 15 percent, we have the potential to be able to create biofuels out of this as well – we can create multiple win-win levels,” Tipton said. “A lot of this is just reengaging the people who live there and love the area the most, it’s an extension of the good neighbor policy.”
Part of the problem in moving forward with projects to clear dead and dying timber are lawsuits filed by environmental groups, many of which oppose fire suppression and say letting forests burn naturally is good for the environment.
Colorado’s 2012 fire season included 10 forest fires that burned nearly 113,000 acres causing millions of dollars in damage. The most destructive blaze in the state’s history, the Waldo Canyon fire northwest of Colorado Springs, forced the partial evacuation of the Air Force Academy along with 35,000 residents and destroyed 350 homes.
In the 3rd Congressional District represented by Tipton, the Pine Ridge fire in the Grand Junction Bookcliffs cost an estimated $2.4 million – a fraction of the $1 billion it cost last year for fire suppression, verses less than a $1 million spent on mitigation.
“What that does not include is the cost to rehabilitee these areas, to reseed them, to deal with water flows, erosion that is coming off the hills once they’ve been burnt,” Tipton said.
Making an upfront investment in preventing the fires is an investment Colorado can’t afford not to make, Tipton said.
“I think we can see the impact of not doing something when we look at the Waldo Canyon fire,” Tipton said. “Suppression efforts have to be heroic.”
Colorado Reps. Cory Gardner, Mike Coffman and Doug Lamborn also support Tipton’s bill, the Healthy Forest Management and Wildfire Prevention Act. It received its first hearing last week, and Tipton is hopeful the legislation will pass the House before the summer fire season begins.