Of all the rich natural resources that America has been blessed with, none have greater ecological and social worth than our nation’s vast forest treasures. They are a source of enjoyment, inspiration and wonderment, a place to retreat from the trappings of modern life.
Some of my fondest memories growing up are of the times I spent on the White River National Forest in Colorado, hunting, fishing, hiking, watching wildlife and recreating with my family.
Tragically, America’s forests, including the ones I grew up on, are being decimated at an alarming rate by large-scale catastrophic wildfire and massive outbreaks of disease and insect infestation. Each year, millions of acres of once-pristine forestland are ravaged by these pernicious wildland scourges.
From the majestic Ponderosa Pine forests that define many landscapes out West, to the Appalachian forests east of the Mississippi, and beyond, America is experiencing a forest health crisis of gigantic proportions.
The cause of this burgeoning environmental disaster is clear: for 100 years the government has aggressively moved to put out wildland fire in all forms, including nature’s periodic small-scale burnings that restore and rejuvenate forest ecosystems. The unintended consequence is a century’s worth of dense forest build-up that’s as close as the next lightning strike from exploding into a massive conflagration.
Forest ecologists and professional land managers increasingly agree that catastrophic wildfire poses an imminent threat to the sustainability of America’s forests and the environment around it. In the environmental community, the Nature Conservancy – one of the world’s largest and most acclaimed conservation groups – has been a leader in building public awareness about the ecological calamities that catastrophic wildfires often cause.
For proof of this, consider last summer.
Colorado’s Hayman fire, the largest in our state’s history, dumped colossal loads of mud and soot into Denver’s largest supply of drinking water, annihilated several thousand acres of cathedral-like Ponderosa Pine old growth, pushed one globally-rare species to the brink of extinction, and created the worst air pollution conditions in Denver’s recorded history. One scientific study found that the Hayman and Missionary Ridge fires in 2002 combined to pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than did all of the cars, trucks and SUV’s in the state of Colorado during the same year combined.
Other massive fires claimed a similarly irreversible environmental toll. Oregon’s Biscuit fire destroyed 80,000 acres of prime old-growth habitat for the endangered Northern Spotted Owl, and Arizona’s record-setting Rodeo-Chedeski fire caused similar irreversible damage to the endangered Mexican Spotted Owl.
It will take decades to reverse these environmental massacres.
But as bad as the forest health problem has become, there is still an opportunity to stem this destructive tide.
Using 21st century technologies and an ever-expanding scientific know-how, overstocked forests can be returned to a natural balance, and the risks of catastrophic wildfire and insect and disease infestations reduced. Environmental catastrophes like those experienced in recent years can be averted.
The only thing standing in the way now is bureaucracy and red tape.
Of the 190 million acres that scientists identify as being at high risk to catastrophic wildfire, federal foresters will manage fire-prone conditions on about only 2.5 million acres this year because of extraordinarily lengthy procedural and documentation requirements facing management agencies. It takes forest rangers on average several years to maneuver a thinning project through this nightmarish bureaucratic process, even where certain catastrophe awaits.
In one recent high profile case, the Forest Service had to endure an 800-step decision-making process over a three-year period to implement a management project on over-stocked forestlands near a major metropolitan city and its primary source of municipal water. Unfortunately, wildfire eviscerated large swaths of the area before the process was complete, causing enormous damage to the city’s source of clean water and destroying a number of homes.
Clearly, this disastrous bureaucratic status quo cannot stand.
Congress is now considering bipartisan legislation my colleague Greg Walden (R-OR) and I introduced that will empower land management professionals with the tools to restore at-risk landscapes to a healthy condition, in a way that honors the imperatives of public participation and protects important environmental values.
The bill’s underlying premise is clear: Given the massive scale of the threat that catastrophic wildfire poses to the health of forest ecosystems, wildlife, air quality, water quality and the safety of myriad communities, it is unacceptable that it takes federal land managers upwards of several years to maneuver forest health projects through an endless maze of bureaucracy.
After enduring several destructive fire seasons, it would be a shameful outrage if Congress once again failed to give forest professionals the tools needed to address these crisis conditions.
It is my hope that men and women of good faith can rise above the ideological clamoring that has defined this debate for so long, and pass legislation that makes sense for rural communities and our environment.
U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Grand Junction, represents Colorado’s Third Congressional District .
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