Local pols debate Healthy Forests Act | SummitDaily.com

Local pols debate Healthy Forests Act

SUMMIT COUNTY – The Healthy Forests Restoration Act approved by the U.S. House Tuesday is getting mixed reviews from fire experts and politicians in the High Country.

The bill advanced to the U.S. Senate Wednesday.

Legislators approved the bill on a 256-170 vote amidst discussions about specifics in the bill and changes as it made its way through the House Resource Committee.

Legislators in last year’s Congress failed to approve a similar bill that would have addressed fire danger in high-risk “red zones.” The U.S. Forest Service defines red zones as areas where communities and their water supplies are near or within forested regions. In Colorado, 6 million acres of land are in red zones.

This year’s bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., and Sen. Greg Walden R-Ore., streamlines procedures to thin trees on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land and on high-risk lands near water sources, endangered species habitat and in areas prone to insect infestation.

The bill also allows federal agencies to outline just one alternative for projects in the forest and shortens the time in which people can appeal the decision and the time a judge has to make a decision on that appeal.

“America is facing a forest health crisis of colossal proportions,” McInnis said Wednesday. “A century of fire exclusion has been proven to be a foolhardy pursuit. Fire is part of nature’s way – it replenishes, it rejuvenates, it restores. Shunned for a century, however, wildfire has returned to the landscape with a vengeance, burning bigger, hotter and with a runaway ferocity than nature never intended. At the same time, unnatural forest stand densities have left our forests in a weakened state susceptible to insect and disease epidemics.”

Deborah Miley, project manager for the National Wildfire Suppression Association, said that agency supports the bill.

“Last year, 23 firefighters lost their lives fighting wildfires in the United States,” Miley said. “The forest conditions that exist today, especially in the West, place our firefighters in extremely risky situations. We need to take proactive steps to thin these forests so that when fires erupt, they are more manageable and less catastrophic for humans, as well as the environment.”

Republicans said the bill “enjoyed broad-ranging” bipartisan support because 17 Democrats co-sponsored the original bill. Only 14, however, ultimately voted for the bill, said Lawrence Pacheco, press secretary for U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, D.-Colo.

Those opposing the bill say they are dismayed the bill doesn’t include language addressing fire danger in red zones.

“This bill will not successfully safeguard our communities,” said County Commissioner Gary Lindstrom. “It doesn’t supply the communities with support – it gives money so logging can occur in forests. We’re concerned about defensible zones, and that’s where the money should be directed.”

Last week, Summit County commissioners sent a letter asking McInnis to amend the bill to include red zones. About a dozen other mountain communities – including Glenwood Springs, where McInnis grew up – sent similar letters.

“The bill does not adequately focus on reducing the danger of catastrophic wildfire to communities and their water supplies, it adds new controversies that will result in more lawsuits, and it unnecessarily guts important environmental laws,” Udall said Wednesday. “And it makes significant and unnecessary changes to environmental laws and does not address the need to treat forests on nonfederal lands that are adjacent to national forest lands.”

“What we would like to see are funds and resources directed to private lands or lands adjacent to communities,” said Deb Robison, regional representative for the Sierra Club. “If it doesn’t do that, it’s no good.”

Udall said he tried to change the bill to address red zones, but those attempts failed.

“One amendment would have created broad-based advisory panels to help select forest restoration and fuel reduction projects in areas directly affecting communities and their water supplies,” he said. “Another amendment would have required that 70 percent of fuel reduction money be spent on thinning projects in the red zones, which was part of the 2002 bill.”

Red, White and Blue assistant fire chief Gary Green said McInnis’ bill could benefit Summit County, particularly if federal agencies thin the forest surrounding high-risk neighborhoods.

Locally, the Forest Service is working with homeowners to reduce wildfire risk in the Ptarmigan, Wildernest and Ruby Ranch neighborhoods. The Forest Service also is working on the Upper Blue Stewardship Project, which could involve thinning and controlled burns to improve the health of the forest between Breckenridge and Frisco.

Acting District Ranger Rick Newton said he hasn’t seen the Healthy Forests Act but that the Forest Service prefers fire mitigation projects are done in the red zones.

There are many unanswered questions, however, including where forest thinning would occur and to what extent, when work would start and how projects would be funded.

“There would have to be a market incentive,” said Northwest Colorado Council of Governments executive director Gary Severson. “There’s not enough grant money to go around, and the budgets don’t have any money. But I don’t see this is an attempt to refurbish the logging industry in Colorado.”

The bill does, however, open the door to other endeavors, such as biomass, which involves removing small debris from the forest and burning it to make energy.

“I don’t think it’s a back-door tactic to get clearcutting done,” said county fire mitigation officer Patti Maguire. “There’s just not that big of a timber industry in Colorado. But then I look at the area around the Henderson Mill, and I think, “What the heck?’ It’s a time bomb.”

Jane Stebbins can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 228 or jstebbins@summitdaily.com.

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