Mountains

Wildfires and long-term forest health

Wildfires are an unfortunate fact of life in Colorado. But we are entering the age of super-fires, where factors such as drought, climate change and fire suppression combine to build fires that are larger, and more frequent, difficult and expensive to combat.

We have already seen that this year, with the High Park Fire quickly growing from a lightning strike to one of the three largest blazes in Colorado history — and Waldo Canyon and High Park Fire both breaking the record for the most costly in terms of homes lost within two weeks of each other. I have been actively monitoring these and the other fires burning in Colorado to ensure the firefighters on the ground have all the federal resources they need.

However, confronting wildfire involves more than fighting the blazes while they are burning. In the 10 years since the Hayman Fire of 2002 — Colorado’s largest wildfire — Coloradans have seen firsthand that the devastation from wildfire does not end when the last ember is extinguished.

One of the biggest legacies of Hayman has been its long-term impact on the water supply for Denver and Aurora. Destructive wildfires — like Hayman Fire, the Fourmile Canyon Fire and now the High Park Fire — lay waste to vegetation and allow ash, debris and sediment to flow directly into reservoirs during the next rainfall. Severe fires also tend to sterilize the soil, making it difficult for forests to come back. This lack of new vegetation increases fire areas’ soil erosion and creates areas prone to severe flooding.

Responsible and proactive forest management is critical to confronting the long-term effects of large blazes and the ramifications they have over the long haul on Colorado’s precious water supplies. The cost of forest restoration is nothing compared to the price tag for fighting wildfires, restoring lost homes and businesses, and cleaning and maintaining water-storage facilities after each fire. If forests are the lungs of our land, as President Franklin Roosevelt said, then think of the Farm Bill as preventive care to avoid an emergency room visit.

That is why I have worked hard to make the 2012 Farm Bill, which my colleagues and I passed in the U.S. Senate last month, an important tool in managing our forests. Forests protect 70 percent of Colorado’s drinking water — and much of the water that we send downstream to other states in the West. Our high-mountain storage also protects other downstream users in Colorado, including our farmers and ranchers, who depend on a reliable and high-quality water supply to produce our food and fiber.

The bipartisan bill contains not just policies that support agriculture and nutrition programs, but also proactive measures I supported to help prevent catastrophic wildfire, by giving the U.S. Forest Service flexibility and funding to treat areas decimated by bark beetle and renewing stewardship contracts to encourage private-public sector partnerships to keep forests healthy. It also includes common-sense conservation programs that assist agencies like the Natural Resources Conservation Service at the Department of Agriculture to help mitigate the impact of wildfires on our water supply when they do occur.

The fact that wildfires are expected to become more common and the severe effect they can have on our water supply underscore just how important forest health is to all of Colorado — not just those living in the wildland-urban interface. The smartest thing we can do to protect our public resources is to be proactive about managing our forests and spend taxpayer monies in wise ways.

The agencies on the front lines need support and funding to better manage forests and reduce the likelihood, severity and long-term effect of wildfires. That is why I successfully fought to include a bipartisan amendment that strengthens our response to the bark beetle epidemic. We can relieve the immediate risk to human health and safety by removing beetle-killed trees from high-risk areas, including around residential areas, roads, trailheads, campgrounds and power lines – and very importantly, from the edges of critical watersheds.

The Farm Bill gives the Forest Service additional flexibility to treat beetle-killed areas, and also allows work to continue on stewardship contracting, where the Forest Service partners with private companies to keep forests healthy. More than a thousand acres on the Front Range are treated every year under stewardship contracts, providing local jobs and protecting communities while removing forest products from federal land, improving wildlife habitat, and reducing fuel loads for wildfire.

Efforts to restore forests, including both agencies and private landowners thinning tree stands and reducing ground fuels, go a long way in protecting our water supplies and the systems that keep them clean. While the benefits to mitigating wildfire are countless, we ought to be aware of how unhealthy and improperly managed forests affect the water we depend on for drinking, agriculture and just plain living.

Working together, we can implement the Farm Bill to achieve these important goals.

Mark Udall is the senior senator for the state of Colorado. He serves on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and is chairman of the Subcommittee on National Parks.

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