Stopping the Fires Next Time
As fires spread throughout much of the West – burning more than 50,000 acres so far in Arizona alone – homes are threatened, endangered species are put at risk of extinction, and lives are jeopardized.
Without strong action now to control the spread of these fires, conditions are such that Arizona could be in for the worst fire outbreak in its history. Arizonans remember well the 2000 fire season – one of the worst on record – which burned more than eight million acres nationwide and cost more than $2 billion to combat.
The federal government, which controls 30 million acres of land, has an important role in addressing this serious problem. In Congress, I have proposed more resources to lessen the risk of wildfires through the use of smarter forest-management techniques. Many forests are now full of small-diameter trees and underbrush that stifle overall forest growth, render the good trees vulnerable to disease, and create a huge fire hazard. Since Arizona hasn’t had much snow or rain in the mountains this year, these small trees are particularly dry and brittle. They are kindling -- ready to go up in conflagrations that will spread out of control.
Over the past several years, environmental scientists have been looking at ways to better manage our forests. Research underway by Dr. Wally Covington at the Gus Pearson forest- restoration site near Flagstaff, for example, demonstrates the benefit of new techniques to restore the health of Arizona’s ponderosa forests. Through site-specific thinning of small trees and underbrush, these scientists are reducing the likelihood of forest fires, and reducing their intensity if fires happen to start. Forest thinning, in fact, is pretty similar to what you or I do when weeding a garden: that is, we remove unwelcome impediments to growth. By removing small, disease-prone trees and opening the forest floor, scientists are creating an environment more conducive to plant and grass growth by reducing the competition among larger trees for moisture and soil nutrients. In fact, researchers have learned that the diversity of species dramatically increases following forest-thinning procedures.
In sum, we know what we need to do to protect our forests. The problem is that we aren’t doing it – at least not aggressively enough.
Though Congress recognizes the urgency of this problem, we still must allocate more resources toward combating it. The Bush administration needs to do a much better job of making this a priority – a point I made quite clear to officials at the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture, who oversee most federally-owned lands.
Government inaction is not the only impediment. Though many environmental advocacy groups actively support the forest-management approaches I’ve mentioned, some groups on the radical fringe oppose any efforts to thin forests. They file lawsuits or stage protests, which causes even further delays.
This very small but vocal opposition is frustrating, since there is near-universal agreement that forest management will protect forests and improve the environment by reducing the chance of fire or tree-borne disease. Additionally, money spent now to prevent forest fires will save millions that would otherwise be spent in putting those fires out. Preventive measures also will spare countless homes and other properties and save lives.
Together with several Western Senators, I will introduce legislation to ensure that adequate dollars are dedicated to fire-prevention strategies, including forest restoration. This bipartisan bill also will create research centers in Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado to focus exclusively on ecosystem restoration and fire prevention, and make sure that federal land managers work directly with researchers to treat acres and restore forests.
Through this legislation, and other steps that I will take as a Member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, we will ensure the forests are restored, reduce the threat of catastrophic fires, and make forest health a top priority in federal land-management policies.
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