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Colo. delegation seeks aid with forest fires


By Paige Jones
Herald Staff Writer

WASHINGTON – Federal officials called for more spending on forest management to prevent wildfires during a congressional committee hearing Thursday.

Wildfires are less likely to ignite if hazardous fuels such as beetle-killed timber and dense undergrowth are cleared away, said Jim Hubbard, the Forest Service’s deputy chief of state and private forestry.

“We have many examples where appropriate forest thinning and subsequent controlled burning have reduced the intensity and scope of wildfires,” Christopher Topik, the Nature Conservancy’s director of restoring America’s forests, told the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation.

Congressmen, government officials and regional leaders met to discuss possible solutions to the Western wildfires.

Reducing the amount of undergrowth and beetle-killed timber in forests will not only reduce the likelihood of a fire, but help the timber industry as well, said Chuck Roady with the Federal Forest Resource Coalition, which represents business interests.

Several Colorado congressional members urged President Barack Obama to declare the Black Forest and Royal Gorge fires as major disaster areas in a letter Wednesday. Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall and Rep. Scott Tipton signed the letter.

Because of a lack of funding, Tipton and Hubbard said the Forest Service funds the restoration and wildfire prevention on only 4 million acres a year, but mitigation work should be done on 65 million to 82 million acres annually.

However, the White House’s current budget proposal recommends a 37 percent decrease in funding for clearing away beetle-killed timber and dense undergrowth, said U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs.

“Poor forest condition is one of the primary factors that have led to destructive wildfires and catastrophic insect and disease outbreaks,” said Joseph Duda of the Colorado State Forest Service.

The Forest Service currently spends $1.77 billion to put out wildfires while spending $296 million to prevent them, said Tipton, R-Cortez.

The Interior Department is coping with similar funding cuts by hiring fewer firefighters and not investing in updated technology, said James Douglas of the Department of Interior.

“We had to absorb some reductions due to the sequester, so we’re down about 100 fire seasonal positions and 250 overall positions,” he said.

However, climate change is to blame as well, Topik said.

“Our forests are becoming warmer, drier and subject to more extreme weather events and longer fire seasons,” he said.

Tipton mentioned his Healthy Forest Management and Wildfire Prevention Act as a solution to establish a program to reduce hazardous fuels.

His “boots on the ground” approach would allow locally elected officials to designate areas with extensive undergrowth and beetle-killed timber and collaborate with federal agencies to prevent these “high-risk areas” from catching fire.

Tipton’s bill has passed its House Natural Resources Subcommittee, and it is waiting for a full committee hearing, his spokesman Joshua Green said.

Paige Jones is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald. Reach her at pjones@durangoherald.com.

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