Governments weigh options as forest disaster looms in West

Governments weigh options as forest disaster looms in West

30 June 2011

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USA — Coeur d’Alene, Idaho • Arizona’s unprecedented wildfire season, scorching more than 900,000 acres so far, is a prelude to the disaster that Utah and other Western states will face without a massive tree-thinning program, governors and federal land managers warned Thursday.

Trouble is, doing it right would cost billions a time when the federal budget is stretched thin and agencies expect cuts. That leaves partnerships with those having something to gain — timber industries, local governments, ski resorts seeking to preserve the trees around them — as funding sources, said Harris Sherman, U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for natural resources and the environment.

“We need to build public-private partnerships to a much greater degree than we have in the past,” Sherman said during a northern Idaho meeting of the Western Governors’ Association. “These forests provide huge benefits to many, many beneficiaries.”

Without help, the West’s forests face daunting challenges and possible catastrophes, especially where growing populations live next to thick, drying trees. Already the natural cycle of beetle kills on conifers has gone way past anything ever recorded, and researchers say warming temperatures are likely to continue the trend.

Eighty million acres of Western forests present moderate to high wildfire risks, Sherman said. It costs $200 per acre to douse those risks by prescribed burning, or up to $2,000 for mechanized thinning — either of which is likely beyond the federal government’s immediate grasp.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer described the Wallow Fire, her state’s largest ever, as “devastating” but said localized pre-fire thinning saved some settlements by stopping the flames from spreading. The total losses elsewhere in the fire’s path, she said, are proof that land managers have let the forests gofor too long.

“We are way behind the curve,” Brewer said, “and we are quickly losing opportunities to be proactive.”

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert recounted how the Mill Flat Fire of 2009 torched homes and barns in New Harmony. When he arrived on the scene, he said, federal land managers told him they hadn’t been able to reduce hazards beforehand in a nearby protected wilderness area. It turns out that managers can prescribe burns in wilderness, he said. They just didn’t know that.

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