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Loosen forest thinning rules

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Of all the rich natural resources America has been blessed with, none has greater ecological and social worth than our nation’s vast forest treasures. They are a source of enjoyment, inspiration and wonderment, a place to retreat from the trappings of modern life.

Some of my fondest memories growing up are of the times I spent in the White River National Forest, hunting, fishing, hiking, watching wildlife and recreating with my family.

Tragically, America’s forests, including the ones I grew up in, are being decimated at an alarming rate by large-scale catastrophic wildfire and massive outbreaks of disease and insect infestation.



Each year, millions of acres of once-pristine forestland are ravaged by these pernicious wildland scourges.

From the majestic ponderosa pine forests that define many landscapes out West, to the Appalachian forests east of the Mississippi, and beyond, America is experiencing a forest health crisis of gigantic proportions.



The cause of this burgeoning environmental disaster is clear: For 100 years, the government has aggressively moved to put out wildland fire in all forms, including nature’s periodic small-scale burnings, which restore and rejuvenate forest ecosystems.

The unintended consequence is a century’s worth of dense forest buildup that’s as close as the next lightning strike to exploding into a massive conflagration.

Forest ecologists and professional land managers increasingly agree catastrophic wildfire poses an imminent threat to the sustainability of America’s forests and the environment around them.

In the environmental community, the Nature Conservancy – one of the world’s largest and most acclaimed conservation groups – has been a leader in building public awareness about the ecological calamities that catastrophic wildfires often cause.

For proof of this, consider last summer.

Colorado’s Hayman Fire, the largest in our state’s history, dumped colossal loads of mud and soot into Denver’s largest supply of drinking water, annihilated several thousand acres of cathedral-like ponderosa pine old growth, pushed one globally rare species to the brink of extinction and created the worst air pollution conditions in Denver’s recorded history.

One scientific study found that the Hayman and Missionary Ridge fires in 2002 combined to pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than did all of the cars, trucks and SUVs in Colorado during the same year combined.

Other massive fires claimed a similarly irreversible environmental toll. Oregon’s Biscuit Fire destroyed 80,000 acres of prime old growth habitat for the endangered northern spotted owl, and Arizona’s record setting Rodeo-Chedeski Fire caused similar irreversible damage to the endangered Mexican spotted owl.

It will take decades to reverse these environmental massacres.

But as bad as the forest health problem has become, there is still an opportunity to stem this destructive tide.

Using 21st-century technologies and an ever-expanding scientific know-how, overstocked forests can be returned to a natural balance, and the risks of catastrophic wildfire and insect and disease infestations reduced. Environmental catastrophes like those experienced in recent years can be averted.

The only thing standing in the way now is bureaucracy and red tape.

Of the 190 million acres that scientists identify as being at high risk to catastrophic wildfire, federal foresters will manage fire-prone conditions on only about 2.5 million acres this year because of extraordinarily lengthy procedural and documentation requirements facing management agencies.

It takes forest rangers on average several years to maneuver a thinning project through this nightmarish bureaucratic process, even where certain catastrophe awaits.

Clearly, this disastrous bureaucratic status quo cannot stand.

Congress is not considering bipartisan legislation my colleague Greg Walden, R-Ore., and I introduced that will empower land management professionals with the tools to restore at-risk landscapes to a healthy condition, in a way that honors the imperatives of public participation and protects important environmental values.

It is my hope that men and women of good faith can rise above the ideological clamoring that has defined this debate for so long, and pass legislation that makes sense for rural communities and our environment.

U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Grand Junction,

formerly represented Summit County in the U.S. House. Redistricting moved Summit from McInnis’ 3rd District to the 2nd District, served by U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, D-Boulder.


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