Moisture provides opportunity to further reduce fire danger
Thankfully, a wet late winter and spring have saved most of Colorado. We still face the effects of the current drought, and moisture will be needed throughout the hot season. But it appears most agriculture and other business interests, as well as our outdoor quality of life, have been spared this summer due to the liquid gold from the skies.
Yet, this respite provides a rare chance to achieve progress in a vital economic and environmental area: forest waste management.
The 2003 rain and snow deluge dampened millions of acres of public and private Colorado forest lands at risk to dangerous wildfires.
As we know, 2002 was the state’s worst year for wildfires, as 619,000 acres and over 1,000 homes and other structures were burned, resulting in incalculable environmental damage and hundreds of millions in economic costs.
This year’s moisture provides breathing space to accelerate the thinning and clearing of trees, branches and wood waste from cluttered forests to reduce fire danger.
Moreover, the U.S. Forest Service is involved in a successful public-private process to find economic and environmental solutions in vulnerable forest areas. The USFS’ Economic Action Program links federal forest managers with local governments and residents and businesses near these public lands to identify and support economic development opportunities that improve forest health and economic vitality for the nearby communities.
For example, partnerships are considering or supporting mixing forest waste with manure or other agricultural refuse to make organic recycling products, such as compost and topsoils, useful in many farming, landscape and even forest restoration applications, especially during dry times.
Almost all Colorado counties that host or adjoin public forests have the potential to develop these lucrative agricultural-forest land partnerships.
Another example is a Jefferson-County-led effort that will study the feasibility of a mobile forest waste processor to produce clean, alcohol fuel and electricity from forest discards.
The Economic Action Program is a balanced effort that seeks forest health through market-based, not bureaucratic, solutions.
Too often, when a government program actually works and becomes a valuable public investment, it is neglected or victimized by political gamesmanship from the left and right.
Some environmental advocates pursue preservation by using the courts and regulatory process to prevent the public’s use of public lands. This has created overgrown and congested forests vulnerable to infernos, and has so stymied business participation in clearing out crammed forests that the Colorado wood products industry has become moribund.
Yet, environmentalists often have been forced into extremism as a result of public lands abuse, including unfair federal subsidies given to loggers that can encourage excessive wood chopping in forests.
Based on the rapacious nature of some loggers and other extractive industries, many enviros have become rigid and inflexible.
U.S. Representative Scott McInnis, Colorado’s and Congress’ key man in crafting national forest public policy, must ensure that support for the Economic Action Program is a prominent part of his current forest policy legislation now moving through the U.S. Senate. Or he must ensure there is separate, future funding for this program.
A test of Congressman McInnis’ mettle will be his leadership and support for balanced initiatives that avoid special interest cacophony and that offer economic and environmental solutions for the vast majority of Americans.
Will Coloradans this summer see progress in forest health management, including greater use of forest wastes, or will they see another summer of waste?
Bill Schroer of Littleton is a consulting economist and free-lance writer on environmental and energy public policy issues.
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