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Governments weigh options as forest disaster looms in West

Published July 1, 2011 8:54 am

Fire threat • Herbert, other governors call for action to thin sick, drying trees.
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Coeur d'Alene, Idaho • Arizona's unprecedented wildfire season, scorching more than 900,000 acres so far, is a prelude to the disaster that Utah and other Western states will face without a massive tree-thinning program, governors and federal land managers warned Thursday.

Trouble is, doing it right would cost billions a time when the federal budget is stretched thin and agencies expect cuts. That leaves partnerships with those having something to gain — timber industries, local governments, ski resorts seeking to preserve the trees around them — as funding sources, said Harris Sherman, U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for natural resources and the environment.

"We need to build public-private partnerships to a much greater degree than we have in the past," Sherman said during a northern Idaho meeting of the Western Governors' Association. "These forests provide huge benefits to many, many beneficiaries."

Without help, the West's forests face daunting challenges and possible catastrophes, especially where growing populations live next to thick, drying trees. Already the natural cycle of beetle kills on conifers has gone way past anything ever recorded, and researchers say warming temperatures are likely to continue the trend.

Eighty million acres of Western forests present moderate to high wildfire risks, Sherman said. It costs $200 per acre to douse those risks by prescribed burning, or up to $2,000 for mechanized thinning — either of which is likely beyond the federal government's immediate grasp.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer described the Wallow Fire, her state's largest ever, as "devastating" but said localized pre-fire thinning saved some settlements by stopping the flames from spreading. The total losses elsewhere in the fire's path, she said, are proof that land managers have let the forests gofor too long.

"We are way behind the curve," Brewer said, "and we are quickly losing opportunities to be proactive."

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert recounted how the Mill Flat Fire of 2009 torched homes and barns in New Harmony. When he arrived on the scene, he said, federal land managers told him they hadn't been able to reduce hazards beforehand in a nearby protected wilderness area. It turns out that managers can prescribe burns in wilderness, he said. They just didn't know that.

"They let it burn for three months," Herbert said later in an interview. When he asked Forest Service officials why they did, he said, they told him the wilderness area was getting too densely vegetated for deer. "They were waiting for a lighting strike for years."

Now Herbert wants to work with the Forest Service to address fuel buildup around Kamas in Summit County. "If that gets away from us," he said, "you've got all these homes you could lose."

Idaho officials outlined how their revenue-producing timber program on 1 million acres of state trust lands is suppressing fire danger when compared with adjacent federal lands, and Gov. Butch Otter said the federal government has a responsibility to be a "good neighbor" by not allowing woody fuels, weeds or other threats to build next door.

But Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer said it's unclear that logging alone is an answer to the region's problems. U.S. politicians for two decades have complained that British Columbian loggers are whacking their forests at an unsustainable pace while dumping cheap lumber on the U.S. market, he noted, yet that Canadian province is now the epicenter for the mountain pine beetle outbreaks sweeping the West.

Something beyond a lack of forest thinning is at work, he said. "We are in a historic time of pine beetles killing pine trees."

Scientists point to slightly warming temperatures in recent decades, which tax trees by extending their growing seasons without adding more water for support. Stressed trees are more susceptible to beetles that burrow through their bark to lay eggs. By some estimates, the outbreaks that have exploded in the past five years are 10 times larger than ever seen.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco, at the meeting to sign an agreement for her agency to provide climate outlooks helping Western states manage resources, said beetles are part of the forest ecosystem, "but never anything like this."

Warmer winters appear to increase beetle survival, she said in an interview, noting that she's not a beetle expert. Meanwhile, increasing fluctuations in weather extremes appear to stress trees adapted to more stable seasons.

In one resolution debated Thursday by the governors, climate change proved a sensitive topic. Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead moved to adopt a resolution in which the governors would promote alternative fuels, but Herbert objected to intent language because it referenced climate change. Mead amended his motion to replace "climate change" with "environmental impacts," which divided the association. Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber voted against that change because, he said, the panel had just spent the morning hearing about how climate change is threatening forests.

Herbert later said he and Mead believe an alternative-fuels resolution was not the appropriate forum for the governors to consider a statement on climate change.

It was unclear Thursday whether the amendment or the resolution would pass because the association lacked a quorum and was waiting on proxy votes from governors not in attendance.

bloomis@sltrib.com —

Herbert wins leadership spot

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert will be vice chairman of the Western Governors' Association for 2012. Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire was elected chairwoman.






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