DENVER–In the last few years catastrophic wildfires have swept the western United States, causing billions in damage and taking more than a hundred lives.
In Colorado three massive forest fires, the Cameron Peak Fire, East Troublesome Fire and Pine Gulch Fire destroyed hundreds of homes and over a half-million acres of forest in 2020.
The Cameron Peak fire, ignited August 13 southwest of Red Feather Lakes, is now the largest forest fire in Colorado history, burning over 200,000 acres. The cause of the fire is still undetermined.
In the wake of these fires the Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) is working with private contractors on the Owl Mountain timber sale forest thinning project between highways 125 and 14 in Jackson County, between the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome burns.
As the ABC affiliate in Denver reports, “Additionally, the CSFS and the private logging company are making a profit on the project that the CSFS says more than pays for itself.”
But the 387 acre thinning operation is like removing one straw in the haystack hoping it will help keep it from burning down.
Colorado has at least 2.5 million acres of trees that are ready to burn thanks to insects, disease and lack of management.
The CSFS estimates that it would cost $4.2 billion to treat just the trees in urgent need of treatment.
As if that’s not problematic enough, environmentalist challenges to commercial logging cost the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) millions in litigation and administrative costs as the USFS struggles to comply with the complex web of federal laws governing forest management while still doing their job of managing Americas forestlands.
A 2014 study by the Society of American Foresters reviewed litigation against the USFS from 1989 to 2008 and found 1,125 cases filed in federal court, of which the USFS only lost 23%. That total does not include administrative appeals, which by some estimates are filed in more than 50% of cases.
Former Secretary of the Interior from 2001 to 2006 and Coloradan Gale Norton told Complete Colorado, “Environmentalists have opposed treatment of forests for fire prevention in much the same way that they countered all kinds of other logging. I think in one state every single thinning process that was proposed had litigation filed.”
There is no easy way to find out how much such challenges and lawsuits cost taxpayers.
A 2015 case study of litigation costs in Region 1, which includes Montana and Idaho, by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana estimated the economic impacts to the USFS of $9.8 million in 2013 and $6.8 million in 2014.
“The Sierra Club, for example, for many years had a principal that no tree should be harvested from the forest for commercial purposes,” continued Norton. “They were reacting to the idea of clear-cutting huge lots of forest and objected to that, but at the same time they were overreacting when it was a much more reasonable forest management approach.”
Environmentalists even complain and challenge burned timber harvesting, claiming wildlife needs burned-out snags as habitat.
“We started working on the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, which was passed in, I believe, 2003,” Norton said. “That was an attempt to do away with some of the red tape involved in trying to do forest restoration and that had bipartisan support. Most westerners realized that we had significant fire danger and needed to do something about it. That made it more difficult for environmentalists to block fuels treatment programs in court. It also really kicked off the idea of community planning for communities that are in the wildland-urban interface, where the forest is right next to communities. If that works, then you can avoid a lot of the litigation problems.”
In response to deadly fires in California that killed 103 and burned just under 2 million acres in 2018, in December of that year President Trump issued an Executive Order directing the federal government to take a more active role in forestry management and wildfire risk mitigation.
That order was met with loud objections by environmental groups, who called it an “attempt to undermine designated wilderness and roadless area protections,” and “Trump appears to be using this opportunity to expand the logging industry and increase timber sales, instead of saving the dwindling number of trees and forests we have left.”
“I think that the mental image is of people clear-cutting areas of forest, and that used to be the case. But what we’re really talking about now is thinning out the undergrowth and small trees so that the forest is actually healthier, as well as being able to withstand fires when they go through,” said Norton.
Note: The Colorado State Forest Service declined comment, saying only “We are not currently involved in any such litigation.”