McInnis bill helps protect forests, communities |

McInnis bill helps protect forests, communities

Martha Ketelle
White River National Forest supervisor

The Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 introduced by U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis and passed by the House of Representatives last Tuesday is an important piece of legislation. The bill encourages federal land managers to deal in a timely way with deteriorating forest health. It also provides tools to reduce the threat of wildfire to forests and communities. This bill has the potential to improve management of the White River National Forest and your enjoyment of the forest.

Forests in western Colorado are lush with pine, spruce and fir trees. Many of these trees are in dense, even-aged stands – the result of decades without disturbance through natural wildfire or other means. As with many of our neighboring forests across the West, the extended periods of drought, presence of insects and subsequent death of these mature trees is contributing to major changes in the landscape and is creating a high risk for fires.

Last year’s fires on the White River burned more acres than in any other year in the history of the forest. We managed one fire, the Big Fish in the Flat Tops Wilderness, to burn through some of these dense spruce/fir stands to revitalize the forest – just as might occur naturally. Fires closer to communities were suppressed to protect lives and property. There are very few places where we can let fires burn because there is so much development along forest boundaries. In 1999 a 3,000-acre blow-down occurred in the Baylor Park area. Stress, associated with the ongoing drought and the blow-down, resulted in spruce bark beetles attacking green trees. While some infested trees have been removed, there is still more that can be done to protect trees in the area.

The act can help forest managers expedite the process for evaluating environmental effects of projects such as Baylor Park. Public involvement and opportunities for people who object to projects is part of the process. The legislation would shorten timelines to consider project objections. Where time is critical, such as beetle infestations and seasons with severe wildfire danger, being able to implement a project quickly is important. The act puts responsibility for dealing with these land management decisions in a timely manner on the agency, the courts and those who object. The bottom line is every project must comply with existing laws and the Forest Plan.

Another emphasis of the act is that federal managers need to deal with communities in developing projects in the “red zone” – where the forest bumps up to developed areas. The White River has been working with local and state governments to identify projects in and around towns and subdivisions and involving them in project development.

The White River National Forest has 250,000 acres, or 12 percent, designated as suitable for commercial timber harvesting under our new Forest Plan. Other areas requiring fuel reduction still need to be treated through other means such as prescribed fire and thinning.

When managing 2.3 million acres of forest, we consider ecologic conditions and what might happen naturally. But, we also have to consider social, economic and political impacts related to our actions. The forest has been affected by growing communities and the wide variety of uses we’re accustomed to enjoying. It’s why we live here and why people come to visit. Consequently, we need to actively manage the forest to preserve the aesthetic qualities of a healthy forest.

The bill, if enacted into law, will provide tools that assist forest managers and allow communities to have the quality of life we value.

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