USA — Westerngovernors endorsed a plan Thursday to step up thinning of U.S. forests andimprove the accounting of those projects to better reduce wildfire risks whileprotecting homes and natural ecosystems.
The proposal calls for better sharing of information and monitoring ofaccomplishments and forest conditions to make the most of scarce dollars and ”improvetransparency” in decisions about where and how to do the logging.
”Governmental and non-governmental entities are collaborating and makingsignificant progress on the ground and in management to address this nation’sfire and forest health needs,” four Western governors, federal and stateofficials said in a letter Thursday to congressional leaders.
”Yet, despite our best efforts thus far, substantial work on our forest andrangeland remains.”
U.S. Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey said the proposal represented ”amidcourse correction” to the association’s earlier document approved in 2002.
”This is a reflection of the experience in the first five years,” Rey saidin a news conference call with U.S. Bureau of Land Management chief KathleenClarke and three Western Governors’ Association members at the Green ValleyRanch hotel-casino in Henderson.
”One of the indications of success is that we had a record fire season, with9.4 million acres burned, and we only lost 800 primary homes this year,” hesaid. That compared with 2,000 homes lost to wildfire in 2002 and 3,000 homes in2003, Rey said.
Conservationists critical of the Bush administration’s thinning policies saidthey wanted to see more details of the governors’ plan and would insist federalagencies follow environmental laws in the process.
”The problem is, what do they mean by thinning?” said Chad Hanson of theJohn Muir Project in Grass Valley.
”Precommercial thinning is like snapping pole-sized trees, which really doesreduce fire. But that by and large is not how the money is being spent. In someplaces they cut trees up to 24 inches thick far away from communities under theguise of reducing fire risks and then they actually increase fire risks,” hesaid.
Paul Orbuch, a lawyer with the Western Governors Association, said additionsto the plan included performance measures and tasks aimed at improving fireprevention and suppression, reducing hazardous fuels, restoring fire-adaptedecosystems and promoting community assistance.
The document submitted to Congress was signed by four governors but endorsedby all 19 Western governors, Orbuch said.
South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds, a Republican, said the deaths of 23 wildlandfirefighters this year highlighted the importance of understanding forestconditions stemming from decades of fire suppression.
”In the Black Hills, on some days, we had as many as 28 wildfires burning atone time,” Rounds said during conference call with Rey, and several othergovernors.
Rounds said local, state and federal cooperation was needed because ”firedoes not recognize boundaries.”
The governors said their endorsement covered the remaining five years oftheir original plan.
”The emphasis is on collaboration, suppression and prevention… with agreater emphasis in using fire as a management tool,” Rey said of the changes.”In some areas, we now have analyzed fire behavior to the point we can use fireas a natural tool rather than going in and fighting it immediately.”
Laura McCarthy, Western fire and forest restoration director for the NatureConservancy, took part in the governors’ review. She said the plan provided aguide for handling overgrown forests and burned lands across the West.
”Altered fire regimes — too much, too little, or the wrong kind of fire –are one of the greatest threats to the West’s plants, animals and localcommunities,” McCarthy said in a statement released by the governorsassociation. ”This plan helps address that threat by encouraging new and betterscience.”
Chris Mehl, a spokesman for The Wilderness Society in Bozeman, Mont., saidthe association deserves credit for reinforcing the need to work together toprioritize use of scare resources to reduce fire risks.
”But they have been talking about collaboration and getting stakeholderstogether for a long time,” he said.
”Better accounting is long overdue because it is clear the funding is notgoing up as fast as the threat is,” he said.