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Forest management: A burning issue

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Sep 29, 2017
A hotshot team member working the Rice Ridge Fire in Montana.
Photo courtesy of InciWeb, an operation of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group

The House Committee on Natural Resources held a lively hearing last week about ways to mitigate the rash of catastrophic wildfires we’ve experienced in the West. To date wildfire has claimed 8.5 million acres of forest land, both public and private, and has cost over $2 billion. The testimony offered to the committee was consistent and three of the four people who testified suggested that the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) needs to actively manage the forests. Log them, thin them and just clean them up!

Phil Rigdon, president of the Intertribal Timber Council and natural resource deputy director for the Yakama Nation in south central Washington, said that Indian forests are able to prepare for and respond to fires better than other federal lands, at a fraction of the cost.

“Indian tribes work in partnerships with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and others to care for the land. We operate modern, innovative and comprehensive natural resource programs premised on connectedness among the land, resources and people.

Our approach is holistic, sustaining a ‘triple bottom line’ of economic, ecological and cultural values. We care for the land through active management and do our utmost to aggressively treat problems such as wildfires and insect or disease infestations before they can reach disastrous proportions.

“Our national forests are being lost by the failure to undertake active management,” Rigdon says. “Tribes can offer federal forest managers new tools and a holistic approach badly needed to restore forest health.” The Indian groups appeared to be quite successful in their restoration efforts, from spraying for insect infestations to logging and earning revenue for the tribes.

The Mescalero Apache Reservation in Ruidoso, NM, is often cited as a well-managed forest. The fence line between the Mescalero-managed forest and the national forest is quite revealing. One is a healthy forest with managed tree density and the other is overgrown with massive tree density.

Climate change was also offered as a reason for the out-of-control wildfires. Dr. Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist of Geos Institute—a group he helped found—says, “If measures are not taken to stem greenhouse gas emissions, wildfire acres are projected to increase farther in dry areas as annual temperatures are expected to rise another 2.5 to 6.5 degrees F. by mid-century. Some researchers estimate more than half of the increase in acres burned over the past several decades is related to climate change.”

Chronic litigation was also cited as a problem.

Environmental groups aim to sue the Forest Service to stop planned active management. The Equal Access to Justice Act was mentioned. Reforming the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was discussed. Those environmental groups would use NEPA to stop the work and it could take the USFS years to work through the policy. And the Endangered Species Act was cited to be problematic when attempting to actively manage the forests.

Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR) introduced H.B 2936, The Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017, which would provide protection to the National Forest System by implementing proactive management standards intended to lessen the threat of wildfires and other risks.

Cosponsor and Western Caucus Chairman Paul Gosar (R-AZ) commented, “This legislation will streamline the permitting process for proactive thinning projects while simultaneously ensuring reforestation activities. Inter-agency dysfunction and frivolous lawsuits from environmental extremist groups have plagued forest management long enough. This bipartisan bill will not only strengthen collaboration between the federal government and local stakeholders, but will also improve forest health for generations to come.”

We have watched these wildfires grow and become more threatening over the years, and, yes, fire is part of the ecosystem. But the last 30 years of forest management haven’t gone so well. It seems that when we started limiting use of forest lands we started having more problems. The Indian tribes seem to be doing a fine job managing tribal forests. I’d say we need to try different management methods because what we’re doing isn’t working. We haven’t even discussed the beetle kill problem yet.

I’m pleased with the direction this administration is going on land use. Let’s just hope Congress can tow this one over the line. — PETE CROW

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