USA — Gov. Matt Mead believes western states must take on more responsibility for wildfire prevention given the budget constraints on the federal Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, a spokesman said Friday.
Governors attending the Western Governors’ Association meeting in Las Vegas on Thursday told federal officials that with federal budgets tight, they plan to spend more of their own resources to prevent wildfires in their states.
“This is not just a federal issue, it’s a state issue, and the states need to be involved heavily in it, not just in policy but in terms of financial support,” Mead said during the meeting, according to The Associated Press. “We’re willing to try new things. That’s what states are good at. Not that we can’t mess them up, but we can fix them when they do.”
Mead spokesman Renny MacKay said the governor didn’t mean states should take over the costs of firefighting on federal lands.
Mead made his comments during a discussion on whether forests could be managed better, MacKay said.
The Forest Service is spending 40 percent of its budget fighting fires, up from 20 percent, MacKay said, leaving the agency with little money for fire prevention.
Mead’s position is that more can be done at the preventive end, through logging and more seeding and tree planting, MacKay said.
Mead recently appointed a state task force on forest health to recommend strategies for improving the health of Wyoming’s forests.
The task force, which will meet for the first time on Wednesday, includes representatives of federal, state and local governments, industry, conservation groups and forest users. Mead asked for specific recommendations by next fall.
“The health of our forests is critical to local economies in Wyoming as well as to wildlife the forests support. The well-being of Wyoming’s forests requires commitment and, I believe, some new ideas,” the governor recently said.
Wyoming spent $42 million to fight fires in 2012, but only $1.5 million this year. The 10-year average for state fire suppression is $3.8 million per year, State Forest Bill Crapser said Friday.
During the Western Governors’ Association conference, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said he recognizes the number of available firefighting planes is on the decline. He said he was interested in building a fleet of aerial support resources in Colorado.
Hickenlooper added that his state is considering taking other local measures, including mandating that buildings use fire-resistant materials, and requiring property owners to disclose wildfire risks to potential buyers the same way they must disclose flood risks.
“At a certain point we are going to have to do things differently. We cannot continue to spend the kind of money and take the kind of losses that we have over the past years,” he said.
The association, established in 1984, aims to help state leaders share ideas, concerns and approaches to dealing with issues unique to the West. It includes governors from 19 states in the West, as well as Guam and American Samoa, but only a handful of leaders attended the conference. Along with Hickenlooper and Mead, the governors at the conference were Brian Sandoval of Nevada, C.L. “Butch” Otter of Idaho, Steve Bullock of Montana and Gary Herbert of Utah.
The federal officials seemed caught off-guard by the governors’ offer to give more of their states’ resources to preventing wildfires.
Agriculture Undersecretary Robert Bonnie and Neil Kornze, who is awaiting confirmation to head the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, thanked the governors for their promised cooperation.
Kornze explained that when federal officials are forced to choose between protecting a property or saving important habitat, like the brush where the sage grouse live, they must choose the homes over the animals. He called on states to help ensure that there are fewer homes likely to burn each year.
Sandoval was alone in making an outright plea for federal firefighting resources. He said Nevada should be entitled to more federal attention because it is home to more federal lands.
His fellow governors groaned and shook their heads, and Otter joked that someone should shut off the Nevada governor’s microphone.