Rep. Scott Tipton’s forest bill headed to the House | VailDaily.com

Rep. Scott Tipton’s forest bill headed to the House

Scott Tipton

EAGLE — Of the 6.6 million acres infested by the mountain pine beetle in Colorado, more than 4 million acres — an area larger than Connecticut — are on land managed by federal agencies, said Rep. Scott Tipton.

Tipton's Healthy Forest and Wildfire Act of 2013 gives local and state officials the authority to designate high-risk areas, and work with the secretaries of interior and agriculture to thin unnaturally dense undergrowth and beetle-killed timber on federal lands.

The U.S. House of Representatives unanimously approved an amendment offered by Tipton (R-Colo.) and Congressman Jared Polis (D-Colo.) that would direct $7.7 million to a national fund to help pay to mitigate weather events, like wildfires, prior to a disaster.

Tipton represents Colorado 3rd Congressional District, which includes the western end of Eagle Valley. Polis represents Colorado's 2nd Congressional District, which includes the eastern end of the valley.

Last year's devastating wildfire season saw two of the most destructive fires in its history. In 2012 Colorado wildfires destroyed nearly 650 structures, killed six Coloradans, burned more than 384,000 acres of land, and caused over $538 million in property losses.

Across the U.S., more than 9.3 million acres of land burned in 2012, much of it on or near federal public land, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

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"The Healthy Forest Management and Wildfire Prevention Act can help … restore our forests before they go up in flames, when the costs are far greater," Tipton said during a town hall meeting in Eagle.

Tipton said an "unwieldy" federal regulations, "systemically prevents progress toward healthy forests."

Almost 85 percent of Eagle County is federal public land, managed by the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. In Garfield County it's almost 70 percent.

"You see entire hillsides that are dead. My grandchildren will not be able to see Wolf Creek the same way I saw it," said Tipton, who grew up in Cortez.

The Forest Service says that by treating these areas, groundwater would increase by 15 percent. Streams would run that have not run for years, Tipton said.

In a congressional hearing, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said more needs to be done to proactively manage forests, rather than spending more and more money to fight wildfires and clean up the mess afterward.

In 2012 the Forest Service spent $296 million to clean up underbrush and fire fuels, but $1.77 billion to fight wildfire.

Tidwell cited budget constraints and employee reductions among his agency's challenges.

Tipton didn't buy it, asking Tidwell why the Forest Service wanted another $60 million for land acquisition, given those budget constraints, instead of using the money for forest management.

"It's a management decision," Tipton said. "Shouldn't we prioritize in tough economic times where those dollars are really going? And rather than asking for more land to manage, when we can't manage the land we currently have, let's apply those dollars to truly manage the forests that we have."

Tipton's forest bill cleared the Natural Resources Parks and Public Lands Subcommittee and now will go to the Natural Resources Committee where the full Committee will hear it, and then give it a mark-up before sending it to the House floor.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935, and rwyrick@vail daily.com.