Fighting fire with chainsaws
McInnis proposes trimming environmental regulations and logging fire-prone forests

Trees that were charred in this summer's Valley Fire are seen in this recent photo.   Under legislation introduced by Rep. Scott McInnis, the environmental process surrounding logging and thinning of national forests would be streamlined in an effort to mitigate wildfire.
The threat of wildfire could be erased by an unlikely source – logging – or at least that’s what U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, R.-Colo., believes. McInnis is currently pushing a bill through a deadlocked U.S. Congress that would speed the rate at which timber projects are approved by eliminating the length of environmental review. Whether his Healthy Forests Reform Act would make for healthy forests is widely disputed, though local forest officials are inclined to side with McInnis.

It’s no secret that Durango, La Plata County, Colorado and the American West in general were racked by wildfires this summer. The Missionary Ridge fire, the largest La Plata County blaze and the biggest impact on Durango, scorched 70,662 acres, swallowed 56 homes and came within five miles of the Durango city limits.

On Sept. 4, McInnis responded to this and other devastating blazes with the Healthy Forests Act. Saying that mitigating the future threat of wildfire requires “bold and decisive steps,” McInnis proposes increased logging on 10 million acres of fire-prone, federal lands by relaxing environmental restrictions.

“We feel this bill is the middle ground and will bring about reform on how we manage our forests especially relative to catastrophic wildfires like we saw with Missionary Ridge,” said Blair Jones, McInnis’ press secretary. “The bill would reduce the threat of wildfires to communities, wildlife habitats and watersheds. That should be of particular interest to the people of Durango with the recent drinking water contamination that Bayfield had to experience.”

Currently, logging and other private activities on public lands are governed by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). According to Jones, timber sales can get bogged down by this environmental analysis for years and consequently, forests are not adequately thinned against the threat of wildfire.

“This bill would allow emergency-arrangement designations to be put in place where conditions for catastrophic wildfires exist,” Jones says. “The bill would still allow for the opposition to challenge these projects. But we’re creating a review process where decisions will be made in a few months instead of a few years.”

Slipshod scoping?

While there is universal agreement that La Plata County and the West in general would like to avoid another catastrophic wildfire season, there is some doubt that McInnis’ bill would do that. Mark Pearson, executive director of San Juan Citizens’ Alliance, says that the bill will essentially streamline environmental review and cut the public out of management of public lands.

“Mostly, what it’s doing is trying to eliminate public involvement as much as possible,” Pearson says. “It essentially cuts in half the amount of time for public scoping. Overall, we’d characterize it as encouraging slipshod analysis with vastly limited public input.”

Pearson adds that while this summer’s fires were devastating, they were unusual, and forest policy should be set using a more historic perspective. “It doesn’t seem like the best idea to set forest policy on an extreme event like a 100-year drought,” he says.

Pearson also is quick to note that the main culprits in wildfires are brush and small-diameter trees, neither of which are profitable to loggers. “Our worry is they’ll start throwing more and more big trees to make it more economically attractive, and they’ll start perverting the whole purpose that way,” he says. “Ultimately, all the oak brush and small-diameter pine is difficult to make into a commercial product.”

Logging our way into wildfire

Tammy Tyner owns Timber Tech West, a Durango company that specializes in thinning forests for wildfire mitigation, and forest restoration. The restoration efforts are directed entirely at trying to return areas that have been clearcut to pristine states. Tyner says that irresponsible logging practices have led to the dangerous wildfire conditions that exist today.

“High-grade logging is absolutely, 100 percent irresponsible,” she says. “We’re going to have to be very careful if we let loggers come in. They’re part of the reason we’re in the state we’re in.”

Rather than encouraging logging by streamlining environmental regulations, Tyner suggests that the Forest Service may have to carry the load of mitigating fire danger. “What we need to do is to be able to subsidize people going in and cleaning up the forest,” she says.

When asked how McInnis’ bill would address this needed understory removal, Jones replies: “Our focus in the bill is to reduce the fuel loads. Nowhere in the bill does it speak to the quality of the logging. Plus, to ensure that what we’re promoting is working, we’re establishing a monitoring process.”






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