Healthy Forest Bill OK’d in committee
SUMMIT COUNTY – On Wednesday Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives approved a forest thinning bill they said will help avoid disastrous wildfires but that Democrats called a giveaway to the timber industry.
The House Resources Committee approved the bill, 32-17. Four Democrats joined all 28 Republicans in supporting the measure, which now heads to the House Agriculture Committee.
The Healthy Forests Bill, sponsored by Rep. Scott McInnis, a Grand Junction Republican, would make it easier for forest managers to implement controlled burns, clear trees and underbrush and diversify the ecosystem. It also would streamline public appeals to allow projects to be completed within months rather than years.
Rick Newton, the U.S. Forest Service’s acting ranger for the Dillon district, said many federal regulations and processes need to be streamlined to help forest managers get plans off the drawing board and into the woods.
“We have good public acceptance on the local level for the need to do things, but we still have some critics appealing projects and holding them up,” he said. “It’s frustrating, time-
consuming and expensive. If one person isn’t happy with doing anything in the forest, it could hold up a project that would do a lot of good for a lot of folks.”
The bill calls for logging on up to 20 million acres of federal land at high risk of fire. And it gives federal agriculture and interior secretaries authority to approve timber harvests up to 1,000 acres without environmental review while they develop programs to control insects, such as the mountain pine beetle.
Newton said he’s not sure how much leeway the bill would give the agency in making decisions.
“We’re not going to be able to treat the whole landscape,” he said. “So, we need to prioritize to get the most bang for our buck. Decisions need to be site-specific. Broad-scale prescriptions are not what we need; it’s not what we’re trying to go after.”
Currently, Newton’s working on the Blue River Stewardship Program, designed to treat the forest along the Tenmile Range between Frisco and Breckenridge. The draft Environmental Impact Statement will be available for public comment this summer. Treatment prescriptions there include clearcuts, controlled burns and planting Douglas fir and ponderosa pines.
Those trees were eradicated in the mining era when people cleared forests for railroad bases and homes, Newton said. Lodgepole pines, the first tree species to appear after a devastating event, then took over the barren landscape.
“We’re trying to mimic that natural disturbance process,” Newton said. “To make that effective, we need to do it on a scale that nature would have operated on. If we do little postage stamp kinds of treatments, we’re not going to be effective in treating insect and disease on the scale we need to deal with them. This is an area where we might use a prescription like a clearcut.”
Many Democrats and environmentalists wonder about the extent of the clearcuts.
Rep. Mark Udall, D-Boulder, who represents Summit County, pushed for legislation that would concentrate on the so-called “red zone” areas, where people have built homes in the forest. That part of the bill is no longer in McInnis’s proposal.
“We must speed up efforts to reduce the risk of wildfire to communities and water supplies,” he said. “It’s why I voted for the McInnis bill last year. But the bill the committee approved isn’t the same bill I supported.”
Udall introduced amendments to the bill, one of which would have created advisory panels to select forest restoration and fuel reduction projects. Another amendment would have required that 70 percent of funds be spent on thinning projects in the red zones.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., offered an alternative to authorize nearly $4 billion over five years to log forests and clear underbrush within a half-mile of communities, but it was defeated on a party-line vote.
Summit County fire mitigation officer Patti Maguire said she believes homeowners should take care of their neighborhoods, and the Forest Service should do what it can on public lands, considering its environmental regulations and budgetary constraints.
“Cutting through red tape could be good, but not if it results in bad management,” Maguire said. “Once you cut trees, they’re gone for a long time, so we need to be careful.”
Newton said local plans should be done with the idea of public safety and healthier landscapes in mind.
“Through time, we want to treat the forests to get more diversity back on the landscape,” he said. “And silviculture (the science of forest health) has become a lot more sophisticated in its ability to look at wildlife and riparian needs than the pick-and-pluck policies that were done years ago. We’re trying to work with nature.”
Jane Stebbins can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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