By Mike Coffman
Few things can be as paralyzing to residents and dangerous to our first responders as out-of-control forest fires. The pain, anguish, economic cost and potential loss of life associated with catastrophic fires such as the Fourmile Canyon fire earlier this year are irreparably devastating.
Forest experts will tell you that the largest and most dangerous problem affecting forests in the West is the overaccumulation of growth. This facilitates insect outbreaks (such as the bark beetle), provides fuel for catastrophic fires and chokes the health of the ecosystem. The forests are this way because for years the Forest Service was trapped by two compounding forces.
The first force that resulted in our dangerous and unhealthy forest condition is the decline in the forest product industry. This is due to many factors but most significantly to rising bureaucratic inertia and environmental extremism. Neither man nor nature was allowed to remove trees from the forest, and so they developed into an unnatural and never-before-seen state.
The second was the success of Smokey Bear and the culture of absolute fire suppression that campaign engendered in the American public and policy makers. Countless studies have proven that fires are a common and natural occurrence. They regularly, in a cycle depending on the forests’ particulars, burn comparatively lightly through a forest, and in the aftermath the forest regenerates. Some trees even have fires incorporated into their life cycles. But preventing “accidental” forest fires inevitably leads to preventing all forest fires, and so the normal rhythms of American forests were interrupted.
The results of these policies are seen every year during fire season, and this year in Colorado was no exception. The Forest Service now spends more than $2 billion a year on wildfire management — nearly a quarter of the total resource management budget — and the costs grow nearly every year.
The current prevention scheme simply isn’t working. The program treats so few acres each year that they will be back into dangerous overgrowth conditions long before their scheduled retreatment. All across the West, federal forest lands are being choked with a buildup of hazardous fuels that threaten communities, water resources and human lives.
The bark beetle has received the most attention, but it is merely one aspect of the problem of hazardous fuels buildup throughout Colorado. To combat the bark beetle epidemic and help give land managers greater ability to combat the spread of beetle infestation and return our forests to a healthy state, I co-sponsored a bipartisan bill, the National Forest Insect and Disease Emergency Act, and will continue to fight for its passage.
In addition to combating beetle infestation, we must develop a new comprehensive plan to improve regulatory policy regarding forest management. Federal agency, state efforts, local initiatives and homeowner actions should be coordinated and complementary. We need to find ways to utilize forest products for their potential, which would facilitate their removal and expand the financial base for forest management. Not only paper and wood products, but also alternative energy and green energy programs can utilize wood and forest products. We should equalize the federal rules for woody biomass with wind and solar and ensure that renewable electricity standards treat biomass equally.
At a federal level, we must also do more to ensure that the needs of local communities like those in Jefferson County receive equal treatment in the federal grants process. Too often federal grants are focused on public-lands issues and not protecting communities. Communities can best respond to local conditions, and my meetings with local leaders assure me that they want to help themselves, but they do require access to the existing tools from federal agencies.
As the summer heat turns into winter snow, we must remember another fire season is just around the corner. I will fight in Washington for common-sense solutions that encourage actively managing healthy forests to help prevent future catastrophic fires.
Congressman Mike Coffman, a Republican, represents the 6th Congressional District.