As fires spread, call comes to reform forest policy

Published online: Aug 22, 2013

BOISE-Three U.S. senators called for a national commitment to better manage public lands to help prevent catastrophic wildfires Aug. 20 during a visit to the National Interagency Fire Center.

The senators will lead an effort this fall to provide federal agencies better tools to manage the nation's public lands, a plan that includes more thinning of overgrown forest stands and proper grazing.

A press conference announcing the effort was held the same day the national fire preparedness level was raised to 5, the highest level and one that has only been reached five times in the past decade.

"The fires that are ripping their way through Oregon, Idaho, California and much of the West are proof the federal government's policy for fire prevention is broken," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

The mega-fires that have plagued Western states in recent years are not natural fires, said Wyden, who was joined by Idaho Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch.

"They are infernos that come about as a result of years and years of neglect," said Wyden, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Wyden said he has spoken about the issue recently with the Interior and Agriculture secretaries "and they understand we are going to have to have some bold reforms."

The senators' plan calls for better management of public lands by reducing fuel loads, increasing local decision-making and allowing for more collaborative land management efforts.

Crapo called for increasing the number of collaborative healthy forest efforts, which receive funding under the U.S. Forest Service's Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program.

The efforts have brought together diverse groups of timber industry representatives, conservation interests, county commissioners and people interested in rural economic development to address forest health in specific areas.

Crapo said the efforts have led to additional timber harvests, created more jobs and improved forest health while reducing litigation.

"One of the key ways to deal with these problems is through collaboration," he said. "Collaboration really works."

Risch said reducing fuel loads through forest thinning and other means is the key component of the plan. "If you remove fuel loads ahead of time, fires are going to be less intense and easier to control," he said.

The meeting was held as 51 large fires were burning in 10 Western states, including 10 in California, nine in Idaho, nine in Oregon and one in Washington.

Wyden said Western congressmen will launch a bi-partisan effort this fall that seeks to change federal fire policy and for them, "there is no higher priority this fall than fixing this system."

Every time someone turns on the nightly news, he added, "the dominant story is these horrendous fires. I think we'll have a good (opportunity) to get our colleagues' attention."