Congressional candidates clash over forest management
Udall, also from Boulder, authored legislation to focus the U.S. Forest Service’s forest thinning efforts in the “red zone,” where wildlands meet urban areas. Udall said only half of lands treated with thinning projects in 2002 were in red zones, less than three-fourths scheduled for 2003.
But Udall’s legislation, said Hume, R-Boulder, is not the answer, but either implies or requires all red-zone fuel reduction be accomplished prior to the implementation of any other fuel-reduction efforts.
“This kind of constraint puts a straight jacket on local governments and private property owners, who should be in the front lines of all fuel-reduction planning and efforts,” said Hume. “Red zone fuel-reduction efforts are crucial, but are not the only target in managing wildfire risk.”
The funding mechanism is also flawed, Hume said. He said Udall’s legislation calls for significant federal funding for fuel-reduction efforts, funding that is unlikely to materialize.
“While I supported some federal funding for fuel-reduction projects, the expectation of large-scale funding is wholly unrealistic,” said Hume. “And, why should taxpayers subsidize thinning? That money should go to fund education, homeland security, health care, and other high-priority federal responsibilities, rather than landscaping forest ecosystems.”
Udall said the Forest Service and other federal land management agencies to focus their limited resources in high-priority areas.
Udall released a letter from the agency he said shows many of the forest thinning projects the agency planned for Colorado in 2003 are outside the red zone.
Outside the red zone
According to the letter, of the 19,296 acres treated with mechanical thinning or controlled burns in Colorado in fiscal year 2002, only half were in the red zone; the other half were in other backcountry areas. The Forest
Service is planning to treat 75,930 acres in Colorado in fiscal year 2003, with 72 percent of those acres located in the red zone.
These percentages are based on a Forest Service definition of red zones that includes watersheds, wildlife habitat and other areas that may not be in close proximity to homes and people. Udall said these numbers suggest more projects may be planned far away from the higher risk areas.
“Although the U.S. Forest Service and other land management agencies are planning a number of fuel-reduction projects for 2003, much of this work is outside the high-priority “red zones.’ the areas where fires place homes and people at risk,” said Udall. “I think the Forest Service and the BLM ought to rethink this issue and find ways to focus more of their resources and efforts in these high-priority areas.
In July, Udall asked the Forest Service to list and identify the hazardous fuels reduction projects for the future.
“We have just come off of the worst wildfire season in our nation’s history, and climate projections indicate that next year will be just as dry,” said Udall. “I hope that this information can help us better identify projects and develop greater consensus around those projects so that we can reduce the reoccurrence of catastrophic wildfire, like the Hayman fire.”
Hume said the catastrophic fires of this summer point to a catastrophic failure on the part of Congress and state legislatures in addressing the extraordinary danger wildfire poses to mountain communities and neighborhoods.
He said recent research by forest experts, such as Thomas Veblen of CU-Boulder, defines the danger and the source of the problem.
“For the past 100 years or so, we have been very successful in putting out forest fires in the mountain areas of the west,” said Hume. “The result is dangerous fuel loading in our mountain ecosystems and a tree population 10 to 20 times greater than what existed prior to the construction of transportation infrastructure that has so clearly assisted fire-suppression efforts.”
Obviously, said Hume, the let-it-burn strategy cannot safely be used, either.
He said the answer lies in “prescribed thinning and fuels reduction” where private sector companies, in cooperation with local governments and federal lands administrators, create opportunities for fuel reduction projects that can be accomplished at no cost to the taxpayer.
“This means no clear-cutting. This means highly structured and automated harvesting to trees for commercial use, with fuels reduction being the objective,” said Hume. “The government subsidy strategy is not the answer in that there will never be enough taxpayer funding to really make a significant difference in fuels reduction.”
Hume said in the era of high environmental consciousness, forests have for too long been loved to death.
“The environmental damage done by these catastrophic fires is hundreds of times greater than the minimal disruption causes by prescribed thinning and fuels reduction,” he said.