Udall outlines wildfire prevention bill | SummitDaily.com

Udall outlines wildfire prevention bill

SUMMIT COUNTY – U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., will introduce legislation this week to expedite the process of thinning forests to reduce wildfire risks and protect water supplies in areas prone to fires.

Udall’s bill, the Forest Restoration and Fire Risk Reduction Act, would create advisory panels whose members – representing the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, park service, fish and wildlife and others – will select areas where restoration and fuel reduction projects should take place.

“We’ve made efforts to reduce the risks of catastrophic fire and promote better forest management through fuel reduction and thinning programs, but progress has been slow,” he said. “Also, many projects in the National Fire Plan are in areas that don’t pose the greatest threat to people and property.”

The National Fire Plan permits categorical exclusions (CEs) that exempt projects from forest-use guidelines by which agencies would normally be required to abide.

Usually, Udall said, CEs involve small parcels of land – and Colorado’s dense, aging forests need to be treated on a larger scale.

Environmentalists often oppose CEs, saying they sidestep the many studies needed to ensure the environment will be protected. Udall said using CEs to delineate areas where forests should be thinned will result in lawsuits.

“Categorical exclusions, when you get further into what they mean, are used for smaller projects, like cutting Christmas trees or mowing lawns at the courthouse,” Udall said. “They use categorical exclusions to move projects more quickly through NEPA (National Environment Policy Act).”

Udall’s plan, which he outlined in a conference call Thursday, would complement tree-thinning measures already under way in the South Platte area of Colorado where the Hayman fire – the worst fire in the state’s history – burned 137,760 acres last summer.

The bill also would establish guidelines for forest-

restoration and fuel-reduction projects, it would prohibit thinning in wilderness areas and other special federal lands, and it includes provisions to protect old-growth forests and large trees.

“We can’t stop forest fires; they’re a natural part of forest ecosystems,” Udall said. “But we can – and should – take steps to reduce their intensity and impact. Our forests are part of our treasured natural heritage. They draw people to Colorado and the West. But they are also a danger, and we must take steps to reduce that danger, while also correcting decades of fire-suppression polices that created these high-risk fire conditions.”

His bill would affect areas in the so-called “red zone,” where mankind mingles with the forest.

Udall said he’s had to squelch talk that his plan “is logging in the form of a Trojan horse” and that expediting the plan would circumvent federal environmental guidelines.

“We do need to move as quickly as possible, particularly in high-priority areas,” he said.

State legislators are considering a similar forest-thinning bill designed to free up water supplies.

Udall said he’s not sold on that bill.

“In the short term, it might provide additional runoff,” he said. “But over time, it would be counter-productive. It would result in a decrease in runoff. And you’d have to go back in and do it every 10, 15, 20 years. There are other sustainable proposals.”

However, Udall has signed on to U.S. Sen. Scott McInnis’s proposal to allocate $1 million to Mesa State College in Grand Junction to eradicate tamarisk, a noxious weed that consumes up to 300 gallons of water each day.

“That makes sense,” he said. “It might be like pushing a rock up a hill (to combat the invasive shrub), but we have no choice.”

Other bills Udall has submitted to put into law will, if approved, designate additional land in Summit and Eagle counties as wilderness areas and protect roadless areas. He also is soliciting comment about designating Dry Creek as a wild and scenic river.

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


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