EAGLE COUNTY — The U.S. Forest Service could spend less fighting wildfires if it spent more preventing them, says Rep. Scott Tipton.
In 2012, the Forest Service spent $1.77 billion fighting wildfires, and $296 million removing the fuels that make Western Colorado so vulnerable.
“If we proactively manage our forests we can remove dead trees and re-forest areas with healthy trees that will once again absorb carbon, restore our environment to a healthy state, and protect people and communities from catastrophic wildfire,” Tipton said.
Tipton, a Republican, represents western Eagle County as part of Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District.
He said proactive forest management can help prevent catastrophic wildfires, like the 110,000-plus-acre West Fork Complex Fire.
Tipton said that in addition to tragically taking lives and destroying property, wildfires cause significant damage to the environment including air quality, habitats and watersheds.
Colorado Deputy State Forester Joe Duda agreed, saying proactive forest management could restore forests to healthy conditions and reduce the severity of wildfire.
“Poor forest condition is one of the primary factors that have led to destructive wildfires and catastrophic insect and disease outbreaks,” Duda said. “The response has been to deal with the impacts, unwanted wildland fire, rather than improve the health of our forests through thinning and other management activities.”
Duda said less than one-half of the biomass was removed in the form of forest products than in 1990.
Tipton even tied it to carbon emissions. According to NASA, carbon dioxide emissions from wildfires have increased 240 percent across the West since the 1980s.
Carbon emissions from wildfires have grown from an average of 8.8 million tons per year from 1984 to 1995, to more than 22 million tons from 1996 to 2008.
In 2006, wildfires in Idaho produced 1.6 times more CO2 than all other fossil fuel sources. In 2006 wildfire emissions accounted for 47 and 42 percent of CO2 emissions in Montana and Washington respectively.
Wildfire CO2 emissions are expected to increase by 50 percent by 2050, according to a report from researchers with the Forest Service, Auburn University and George Mason University.
“Wildfire can often emit more carbon in a few weeks than all of the cars in that state do in a year,” Tipton said.
That was true with the Hayman Fire in Colorado and will likely be the case with the West Fork Complex Fire, Tipton said.
Wildfires burned 9.3 million acres in 2012, while the U.S. Forest Service only harvested approximately 200,000 acres of timber.
The cost of proactive healthy forest management is far less than the cost of wildfire suppression and cleaning up the aftermath, Tipton said.
Tipton is pushing the Healthy Forest Management and Wildfire Prevention Act. The bill that would streamline hazardous fuels reduction projects.
The bill asks for no additional money and places no requirement on state and local officials to act. It also enables governors and county commissioners to designate high-risk areas and develop emergency hazardous fuels reduction projects on federal land.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.