The forest health crisis in America has reached such staggering proportions, it is no exaggeration to say, that one generation of national leaders has squandered the greatest legacy of the conservation movement — our national forests.
During the last 20 years, more than 100 million acres of national forests have burned to the ground, including the largest fires ever in Colorado, California, and several other western states. Another 10 million acres were added to that national disgrace in 2020 alone, including utter decimation of 400,000 acres in the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Despite the urgency of the crisis, the U.S. Forest Service has told Congress it will take nearly 30 years to “treat” another 100 million acres it still considers “at risk” of catastrophic fires. For the agency entrusted with managing and protecting these irreplaceable national treasures, that is virtually an admission that it has no intention of doing anything about it, other than watch it all burn.
In response, Colorado Congresswoman Lauren Boebert, with 16 cosponsors, has introduced the “Active Forest Management, Wildfire Prevention, and Community Protection Act.” Were the bill to pass, it would significantly improve the health of national forests by removing beetle-killed trees, thinning and restoring forests on a landscape-scale, and streamlining the bureaucratic paralysis and unending litigation that for decades have hampered virtually any large-scale solution.
Sadly, nothing about this issue is new. Western states, including Colorado, demanded action to stem this crisis 20 years ago, when they experienced the record-breaking forest fires of 2002. Even earlier, Colorado Sens. Bill Armstrong and Gary Hart worked together on funding to address the coming bark beetle epidemic in the early 1980s. Congress appropriated the requested funds then, and millions more a few years later, led by Sen. Wayne Allard. Other Colorado officials tried to get something done: Sens. Hank Brown, Ben Campbell, Mark Udall, and Corey Gardner, Congressmen Scott Tipton, Mike Coffman, Doug Lamborn, and especially Scott McInnis, who successfully passed the landmark Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003. It was signed into law with well-deserved fanfare, finally giving the Forest Service authority it had long sought, to streamline its own processes and implement “treatment” programs in high-risk areas.
There has always been a problem with such legislation, though. Giving the Forest Service the “authority” to act does not actually force the agency to do so. And as time has unfortunately shown, that agency has no desire to actively manage its forests. You see, as is always the standard parlance of the counselors who write legislation, Congress “authorizes and directs” the secretary to implement various policies. But while Congress was thinking “directs,” the agency was hearing “authorizes.” In other words, the Forest Service considered the new law to provide permission, not obligation. The result was that Congress provided all sorts of new tools for forest management, which the Forest Service has essentially declined to use ever since — while 100 million acres of forests burned.
By about 2010, Colorado had lost roughly three million acres of trees to bark beetles and catastrophic fires. Despite constant urging from Congress, the Forest Service has done very little since, and today more than 40 fires are burning across the West, another 600,000 acres already added to the statistics for 2021. Now, 45 million acres of trees in the Rocky Mountain region are dead, a swath stretching from New Mexico to British Columbia.
Rep. Boebert’s bill would require significant volumes of timber removal in critical areas to prevent catastrophic fires, and would put some teeth into the requirement. It would also create the Western Bark Beetle Epidemic Fund, a $126 million account to remove beetle-killed trees, financed entirely by revenue from the timber sales. It would streamline bureaucratic processes, such as allowing removal of at-risk trees within 500 feet of electric power lines without studies, appeals, and lawsuits. My favorite provisions are those limiting the size and scope of documents. One limits environmental assessments to less than 100 pages, while another requires annual reports on timber volumes to fit on one page.
The bill won’t pass under the current congressional makeup, of course, but it lays down a serious marker on the issue for Rep. Boebert, a clear signal that if the House changes parties after the next election, Congress may be poised to act decisively on forest management.
The Boebert bill contains the word “shall” (not “may”) in 57 places. As experience proves, Congress must leave no doubt — action is not only needed, but instructed, directed, and required under penalty of law.
Greg Walcher is former director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, and a Western Slope resident.
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