JOE HANEL/ Durango Herald
DENVER – Colorado’s Republican members of Congress prodded the Forest Service to do more to reduce wildfire risks at a hearing they held at the state Capitol on Thursday.
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, said fires scorched 9 million acres around the country last year and killed more than a dozen people, including six in Colorado.
“It is time that Congress, the administration and citizens of the West take steps to prevent these tragedies. For too long we have been working to stop fires once they start and mitigate damage once it has already been done,” Tipton said.
Tipton promoted his Healthy Forest Management and Wildfire Prevention Act, which has begun moving through the House. He hopes it will get a vote on the House floor sometime after this month, and he predicted it will pass the chamber.
The bill allows for faster approval of forest-thinning projects in areas at high risk of a wildfire.
Thursday’s hearing was informational only and did not advance the bill, but Tipton said many of the eight witnesses provided real-world examples of ways that private companies can help clear overgrown forests.
Mike King, director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources, said forest health is not a partisan issue.
King pointed to a Pagosa Springs biomass plant that burns dead trees as an example of the kind of business that could help.
“We need to figure out a hundred of those opportunities around the state of Colorado for private business to step up,” King said. “We as a state, and the federal government, as well, do not have the resources to address this problem. And let’s be honest, we probably never will.”
All four Republican congressmen from Colorado, plus one each from New Mexico and Wyoming, attended the hearing.
Colorado has 4 million acres of dead, standing timber from beetle outbreaks. King thinks that even if the trees do not burn, they will fall and cause widespread closures of roads and trails.
“The impacts to these communities and every activity that occurs when these trees start to fall down by the millions will maybe bring this to a head faster than anything we could do on our own,” he said.
Other witnesses included several county commissioners and Gale Norton, who was secretary of the interior in the George W. Bush administration.