Budget woes still hindering forest restoration efforts
By Bob Berwyn
FRISCO — The Colorado high country may be buried in snow right now, but lawmakers and fire experts are already brainstorming about the upcoming wildfire season.
As part of that process, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) met with local officials in Summit County recently to get feedback on recent successes and remaining challenges in forest management and wildfire mitigation policies and actions.
“It’s not a question of if we’re going to have more megafires, but when,” Udall said, without ever mentioning global warming as a key factor in the wildfire equation.
Instead, Udall has been focused on the need for more logging to support what’s now euphemistically called the forest products industry. A day before the meeting in Frisco, Udall questioned U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell on timber harvests.
“I’m concerned there’s a gap between the acres the Forest Service is providing for management and the capacity of the industry … what can you do to provide more acreage?” Udall said in the hearing.
Tidwell acknowledged that the agency could increase the pace of restoration by doing a better job at large-scale analysis and expanding stewardship contracting, but he warned that focusing on logging could be counterproductive.
“Whenever we start to talk about the forest in just one way it creates more controversy,” Tidwell said during the Senate hearing.
From Tidwell’s standpoint, the biggest challenge for the Forest Service is the dysfunctional budget system that has forced the agency to shift funds from forest restoration to firefighting in eight of the last 10 years.
“We have to find more ways to be more efficient … there’s no question we have to stop this fire transfer … nearly every year, starting in August we have to stop some of the work we’re doing because the money is going to firefighting,” he said, adding that it affects ongoing work as well as planning for upcoming projects. Instead of having rangers going out and doing preparation work for logging, they are re-assigned to fire-related duties.
In Frisco, Udall said he’s starting to find bipartisan support for a measure that could help with at least some of the funding issues. Senate Bill 1396 would free up some FEMA funds for wildfire mitigation. As well, Udall has been trying to make sure that the Forest Service can update its aging air tanker fleet.
Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue deputy chief Jeff Berino said local agencies appreciate the push to try and prevent the most catastrophic impacts of wildfires.
“We need modern airplanes I get that, but boots on the ground are important, too,” Berino said.
Other fire experts expressed concerns about additional cuts to federal budgets.
“We have a problem across all federal land agencies with budgets … we can’t afford to step back on our efforts. We can’t afford to lose any more resources,” said Ross Wilmore, fire management officer for the east zone of the White River National Forest.
We’ve done what we can to cut red tape and streamline process. It’s probably about as streamlined as it can be,” Wilmore concluded.