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Caitlin Balch-Burnett

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Forest Legislation Won't Solve Fire Threat

Posted: 08/16/2012 12:24 pm

Colorado has been experiencing one of the most devastating fire seasons in history, with the second largest fire in state history, the High Park Fire outside of Fort Collins, and the most destructive fire in state history, the Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs, occurring within the same month. The wildfires blazing across Colorado this summer have been heartbreaking -- over 200,000 acres of public and private land have burned and more than 650 homes have been destroyed.

Some Members of Congress have proposed new federal legislation in response to the hot and dry weather conditions that Colorado and many other Western states are experiencing. Unfortunately, many of these proposals are misguided and would result in extreme harm to our nation's valued landscapes. These proposals ignore the real threat of fires in our communities and distract Congress from focusing on real solutions. Congress should be adequately funding the plans and projects already lined up to address the major threats from fires instead of using the devastation Coloradoans have experienced to promote misguided and destructive new policies.

Congressman Tipton (R-CO) has introduced one of these misguided proposals, the ironically named "Healthy Forest Management Act," which he claims would protect public lands from wildfire, insects and disease. However, the most certain consequence of the bill would be to open up backcountry areas to commercial logging with little or no public input. Congressman Tipton's bill would authorize logging and roadbuilding in any federally Inventoried Roadless Area, including important winter habitat for deer and elk herds in Colorado such as the HD Mountains roadless area near Durango.

Areas that contain old growth forests and wilderness quality backcountry would be put at risk by this proposal, and hard fought protections that have thus far preserved these areas for future generations would be overturned. While scientists across the country work to determine how best to fight beetle infestations and protect communities from wildfires, Congressman Tipton's proposal would open up large areas of our forests to clearcutting, wiping out important wildlife habitat and putting our drinking water supply at risk. And with more than two-thirds of water in Colorado originating on National Forest lands, the health of this forested landscape is undeniably vital to our communities.

Other congressional proposals would also cut the public out from decisions regarding where and when to log -- even people from those communities closest to and most dependent on these national treasures would be left in the dark. In addition, necessary environmental reviews would be skipped, making it difficult to know if popular recreation sites, sensitive wildlife habitat, or treasured landscapes would be lost due to logging. Time and again, we have learned that stakeholder involvement and transparency reduce conflict and lead to better outcomes for everyone, and yet some in Congress continue to introduce proposals that cut the public out of management decisions that impact our public lands.

These proposals ignore the real challenges and prevent the construction of real solutions necessary to protect our communities and forests. Thanks to laws on the books and other administrative tools, the Forest Service already has broad authority to conduct a wide range of projects to reduce hazardous fuels and treat insect and disease infestation near at-risk communities. Research has shown that the one of the best ways to protect communities from catastrophic wildfire is to invest in funding projects that protect and prepare the Wildland Urban Interface and the Home Ignition Zone (just 100 feet from homes). Instead of focusing on investments to protect these important buffers, the congressional proposals go in the opposite direction. Simply stated, the agencies that manage our public lands need more funding, not new and damaging policies to carry out unnecessary backcountry logging projects.

There is no doubt that uncharacteristic wildfire, disease and insect infestations present a challenge to our public land managers. However, the roadblock to overcoming this challenge continues to be a lack of financial resources, not a lack of effective policy direction and not interest and involvement from the public. Congress should provide managers the financial resources they need to protect communities and restore watersheds, instead of playing off of public fears to take the drastic and potentially harmful measures that many of the current proposals promote.

Backcountry areas put at risk by congressional proposals provide important habitat for wildlife and provide many services to Colorado, from filtering clean water to serving as a playground for recreation and providing a natural legacy for future Coloradans. Perhaps more importantly, communities most at risk from future devastating fires urgently need those who control the federal purse strings to focus on funding real solutions.

Addie Haughey, Federal Lands Associate for Defenders of Wildlife, contributed to this post.

 
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