From a Democrat's perspective: Let's fight fire where it counts and stop pointing fingers

  This year was among the worst in a string of terrible fire seasons. So far we have lost 6.5 million acres to wildfire "- more than twice the annual average. In my home state of New Mexico where we've have had a rough season, many residents are still smarting two years after fire destroyed hundreds of homes in Los Alamos and took the lives of two men battling a separate blaze in Lincoln National Forest.


There is no question that our federal land-management agencies need assistance and direction if their attempts to break the cycle of devastating fire seasons are to be successful. But rather than pointing fingers and assigning blame for the condition of our forests, as some in Congress are quick to do, we can seize this opportunity to provide that assistance and direction with an eye toward removing dangerous fuels from forest communities and areas near watersheds.


I have developed a plan that I believe tackles our forest-health problems head-on. First, my proposal would double the number of acres to be thinned next year to 5 million from 2.5 million. Second, it would expand land management agencies' authority to move ahead quickly on thinning projects near communities and in key municipal watersheds. Finally, it would require that the lion's share of federal forest-thinning funding be spent on key municipal watersheds or in communities near national forests.


It is the last of these provisions that makes my plan most effective. Ongoing drought and past fire suppression policies have contributed to the current dire state of our national forests. Approximately 73 million acres in the West are at risk of fire. Realistically, bringing our forests back to good health will take at least 10 to15 years. But we can make near-term progress by focusing thinning efforts on the so-called wildland/urban interface, the areas where forests meet neighborhoods and key municipal watersheds.


This year alone, more than 3,000 structures have been destroyed by blazes that collectively have cost more than $1 billion to fight. After protecting human life, safeguarding homes and communities should be our top concern. We also need to be mindful of the fact that national forests are home to watersheds that provide water to many Western towns and cities. It may be surprising to learn that just 39 percent of the acreage thinned by federal land management agencies this year will be near communities. In recent years, an even smaller percentage of these lands were thinned.


Under my proposal, a full 70 percent of the more than $400 million we will set aside for thinning activities next year would be directed at projects near communities and watersheds. That means tens of millions of additional dollars would be aimed at areas that need it most.


To ensure that the most urgent forest thinning projects move ahead quickly, my proposal would give federal land management agencies additional authority to perform thinning within one half-mile of communities and key municipal watersheds. Specifically, the measure would narrow the circumstances under which lawsuits could be filed to halt thinning work in these high fire-risk areas.


As the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, I am particularly aware of the significance of our environmental laws. They were designed to ensure that our water remains pure, our air remains clean, and our public lands remain pristine. They also provide legal recourse to interested parties in disagreement with a federal land management agency's actions.


But it is because our forests are in such bad shape that I propose limiting legal recourse where the need for thinning is most urgent. It is important to note that I am supporting this action only for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 and ends next September. Any permanent changes to the law would require a much more rigorous debate in Congress and in communities across the West.


It would be a major mistake to use the current fire threat as an opportunity to step up large-scale logging in national forests. To prevent this, my proposal contains strict safeguards that would force federal land management agencies to focus their attention on small-diameter trees and underbrush "- the fuel that poses the most critical threat to the spread of fire.


Our goals should be to mitigate the threat of fire and bring our forests back to good health. Neither of those goals are met by removing large healthy trees.


No one wants to see a repeat of this year's devastating fire season. But if we direct our resources to removing the right kind of fuel (small trees and underbrush) and in the right areas (near communities and key municipal watersheds) we will be taking major steps to improve forest health and protect those living near our national forests.

Jeff Bingaman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a Democratic U.S. Senator from New Mexico and chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • BACKCOUNTRY FILM FESTIVAL MANAGER
    Boise-based Winter Wildlands Alliance is looking for an experienced and highly motivated individual to organize our annual Backcountry Film Festival and Tour and coordinate additional...
  • LAND CONSERVATION MANAGER
    SUMMARY Leads, administers and manages the land conservation, conservation easement stewardship, and property management activities of the City of Fort Collins Natural Areas Department within...
  • CLEAN ENERGY PROGRAM ATTORNEY, NEVADA
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a Staff Attorney who is passionate about Western communities and the protection of the natural environment to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Deschutes River Conservancy in Bend, Oregon
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.