Can Forest Service shift fire focus?

Can Forest Service shift fire focus?

06 November 2013

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USA — For years, Davey Pitcher pushed federal foresters for permission to protect trees just outside of his family’s Wolf Creek Ski Area from the invasion of the spruce beetle.

Even though local employees of the U.S. Forest Service thought it was a good idea and wanted to help, they never were able to clear the project through environmental and bureaucratic hurdles.

When the West Fork complex of wildfires bore down on Wolf Creek this summer, foresters were there quickly with resources and fast decisions to handle the emergency, Pitcher testified Tuesday to a U.S. Senate committee.

“What struck me was how differently the U.S. Forest Service performed when operating under rules that allowed decision-makers to apply resources in what had to be a timely manner,” Pitcher said.

Pitcher is calling for a paradigm shift in Forest Service rules that would allow front-line foresters more freedom to lessen hazards before wildfires break out.

Every summer, Congress and the Forest Service find themselves stuck in an intensifying wildfire dilemma that demands more money for firefighting, at the expense of fire prevention. This year, the Forest Service had to rely on $600 million in “fire borrowing” – raiding its budgets for recreation, logging and science in order to pay firefighters and contractors.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., called Tuesday’s hearing of the Subcommittee on Conservation, Forestry and Natural Resources in order to look for solutions to the problem.

“We need to take a saner approach, in which we put in the work on the front end, ahead of the fires,” Bennet said during the hearing in Washington, D.C.

However, the White House budget for the Forest Service slashes the money available to treat hazardous fuels. Bennet worried the White House plan would leave enough to treat less than 700,000 acres – down from about 2 million today, and significantly less than the 9 million acres burned in recent wildfire seasons.

Jim Hubbard, deputy chief of the Forest Service, said the budget cut is because money is tight and not because of a lack of commitment to clearing overgrown forests near towns.

“The Forest Service very much agrees that hazardous fuels reduction is effective,” Hubbard said.

Two Republican and two Democratic senators attended the hearing, and they generally agreed that it’s better to pay for fire prevention than fire fighting – the opposite of what the federal government does now.

“It’s not this administration’s fault, it’s not the last administration’s fault. It’s the last several, several administrations’ and Congress’s fault,” said Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark.

It was Pitcher, though, who pointed out the essence of the problem. Beetle outbreaks and wildfires are natural processes, he said, but even in the most remote parts of Colorado, there’s always houses, utility lines or some other human settlement that needs to be defended from the flames.

“There isn’t really any area where these natural fires on a grand scale can take place without affecting anybody,” Pitcher said.

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