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for people who care about the West

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].