Governors Kick Off Fire Season with Call to Action
By Kavan Peterson, Staff Writer
A group of Western governors attending a forest health summit in Montana Wednesday (June 18) called on Congress for immediate federal action to protect high-risk communities from wildfires in Western states.
The morning after ordering the evacuation of two communities in Southern Arizona threatened by wildfires, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) released a letter from the Western Governors' Association (WGA) at its Forest Health Summit in Missoula, Mont., asking the U.S. Senate to support collaborative efforts between local, state and federal agencies to prevent catastrophic fires.
"This issue is maybe the most important natural resource issue in the West. We have to work together, we have to move quickly and we have to have things being done on the ground now," Napolitano said at a press conference Wednesday at a ponderosa pine thinning project in the University of Montana's Lubrecht Experimental Forest, 20 miles up the Black Foot River from Missoula.
Forests in Arizona and other Western states are in critical danger from one of the worst droughts in years, a pestilence of bark beetles and 100 years of fire suppression and mismanagement that has left forests dangerously overgrown, Napolitano said.
"We have in essence the perfect storm - historic drought, hundreds of thousands of acres of dead trees and we're entering another hot summer that's sure to include thousands of lightning strikes in our forests," she said. On Tuesday, lightening ignited 97 fires in Arizona alone, she said.
The WGA urged the Senate to review laws and procedures governing hazardous fuel-reduction projects in threatened communities and to make changes that would expedite such projects in a letter signed by Montana Gov. Judy Martz (R), WGA chair; Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R) and Napolitano, WGA co-leads for forest health issues; and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), who did not attend the summit. There are 18 governors in the WGA.
Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) was the only other governor at the press conference when the letter was released. Freudenthal said he made the trip to Montana because he is "still learning what this is about."
The governors did not mention specific appropriation requests in the letter, but told Senators that by fully funding forest restoration projects, "wildfire suppression costs will diminish over time as communities restore forests to their natural conditions."
The Senate is expected to take up a House bill next month that reflects President Bush's Healthy Forest Initiative, which aims to prevent wildfires by streamlining the thinning process of timber on national forests.
Supporters of the administration's plan say that endless administrative appeals and court challenges are slowing federal efforts to address the dense forest conditions that threaten communities in Western states. Democrats and environmentalists say the administration's plan would make it nearly impossible for environmental groups to stop projects that threaten wildlife or habitat.
"While we've battled gridlock and endless litigation in courtrooms, our forests have gone up in flames and the overall health of the ecosystem has declined. We must shift the focus from the court rooms to the forest," Kempthorne said in his keynote address to the conference Wednesday night.
The governors agreed that logging has to occur to address the dense forest conditions that can result in catastrophic fires. But Napolitano said that fuel-reduction projects in her state are not being delayed by the administrative procedures, but by a lack of federal resources.
"Right now there are more than 70,000 acres of fuel reduction projects on federal lands that have been through the review process and not questioned. These projects are ready to go," but not a single tree has been thinned, Napolitano said.
One fuel-reduction project in Arizona, the 4,690 acre Fort Valley Ecosystem Restoration Project, was approved two and one-half years ago but remains untouched due to a lack of federal resources, Napolitano said.
"The House bill does too little in terms of providing actual resources to FEMA, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to begin fuel reduction projects that will not only help restore our forests to a healthier condition but also protect our forests and communities and citizens," Napolitano said.
Some environmentalists at the summit said in interviews that the WGA has not made protecting threatened communities a priority over logging and fuel-reduction projects in remote forests.
"Part of the problem with the WGA platform is that it prioritized the fire suppression and fuel reduction work above the community protection, home protection work and of course, allowing more fire back into the ecosystem," Jake Kreilick of the National Forest Protection Alliance said.
Joining the three governors at the summit was U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton, U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth and over 300 participants including government employees, timber industry representatives, forestry experts, environmentalists and private citizens.
The governors, administration officials and participants will develop additional recommendations to improve forest health and speed locally driven projects on Thursday (June 19). They will also evaluate the progress of the WGA's 10-year strategy and implementation plan for reducing wildfire risks approved by the governors and the administration last year.