As wildfires rage in western Colorado, the U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to vote as soon as this month on a bill intended to expand the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management’s ability to fight fires.
Part of the bill would give the Forest Service more direct access to firefighting funds through the Federal Emergency Management Agency instead of “fire borrowing” from other programs.
A more controversial part of the bill would allow forestry companies to thin out the overgrowth in forests that can provide fuel for fires. Environmentalists say the thinning provision is merely an excuse to help forestry companies make more money.
Colorado Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, contributed language in the “Resilient Federal Forests Act” that would authorize removal of overgrowth.
The bill, which was sponsored by Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., has already been approved by the House Natural Resources Committee. It is awaiting a final vote on the floor of Congress.
“Sawmills like Montrose Forest Products in my district stand ready and eager to carry out environmentally responsible timber harvests, utilizing salvageable timber stands and creating jobs and revenues,” Tipton said in a statement.
He denied allegations that he would sacrifice environmental protection for profits of forestry companies. Instead, thinning of overgrowth could protect the forests from devastating wildfires, he said.
“Healthy forests provide vital habitat for wildlife, protect watersheds, provide for outdoor recreation and are a reliable source for a wide array of timber products,” Tipton said. “They are also a natural carbon sequestration system. Dead and dying forests lack the ability to adequately provide for any of these.”
The result can be disasters like the Peak 2 fire that has raged near Breckenridge in recent days, according supporters of aggressive forest management.
“Overgrowth within forests poses an unacceptable risk of exceptional, intense and catastrophic wildfires, which devastate the landscape, endanger watersheds and siphon off agency resources that are needed elsewhere,” Tipton said.
Tipton’s contributions to the bill include provisions that authorize states to work with the federal government on public land at high-risk of wildfire and that address insect and tree disease problems.
The planned vote in Congress coincides with a fire season that has seen forests burning throughout the West, at least three large ones in Colorado in the past week. The Colorado Department of Health and Environment blamed the wildfires on high temperatures, low humidity and unpredictable wind patterns.
Meanwhile, residents of Eagle, Summit and Grand counties have dealt with occasional air quality advisories because of smoke from the wildfires.
However, some environmentalists say the Resilient Federal Forests Act is not the way to resolve fire hazards.
“This is a radical, agenda-driven bill that sacrifices our national forests by catering to industry interests at all costs,” Tracy Coppola, legislative counsel for the nonprofit environmental law organization Earthjustice, told Colorado Politics.
She said the bill could undermine federal laws that protect the environment, such as the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. It also eliminates the requirement of an environmental review and the public’s right to comment on the legislation, Coppola said.
A better option is for Congress to ensure adequate funds and resources for fire suppression, she said.
The Resilient Federal Forests Act “is just another in the flood of attacks to our national forests under the guise of wildfire management that would prioritize timber and other extractive industries,” the Earthjustice attorney said.
However, advocates for more aggressive forest management draw support from a February 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture report that suggests “hazardous fuel reduction” as one method of protecting the national forests. Hazardous fuel reduction is similar to the overgrowth removal proposed in the Resilient Federal Forests Act.
The report says there are 65 million to 82 million acres of National Forest Service land that need “restoration,” which could include cutting away and removing trees and other overgrowth that contribute to fires.
“Simply put, the Forest Service needs the timber industry in order to get this work done,” said Molly Pitts, Rocky Mountain states director for the advocacy group Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities. The group’s “coalition partners” include logging companies and lumber mills.
She said that “in terms of Colorado, we are facing a true crisis with our forests.” She cited a 2016 Colorado State Forest Service study that concluded some risks from wildfires, such as last year’s Beaver Creek Fire that burned 38,000 acres northwest of Walden, could be avoided with better forest management.
“The Resilient Federal Forests Act will provide the necessary tools for the Forest Service and other land management agencies to get the critical work needed done on the ground, while fixing the fire funding issue,” Pitts said.