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Restoring forest health, jobs

As many of us in Idaho know firsthand, poor management of our national forests has devastated forest health and rural economies.

The consequences were highlighted for a national audience at a hearing of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands, of which I am a member.

The U.S. Forest Service says 30 percent of the nation’s national forests are at high risk for catastrophic wildfire – 58 million of the 193 million acres in the National Forest System. That’s an area larger than Idaho.

Wildfire’s impacts on water quality, wildlife and property are significant. Worst of all are the lives lost: In the last 20 years, there have been 348 wildfire-related fatalities in the U.S.

Increased fire risk is no coincidence, as the last 20 years have seen a steep drop in timber harvests and a dangerous rise in fuel loads.

Between the mid-1950s and mid-1990s, the harvest on national forests averaged between 10- and 12-billion-board-feet annually. During that time, an average of 3.6 million acres burned annually.

Since 1996, timber harvest has fallen to between 1.5- and 3.3-billion-board-feet, while the number of acres burned has nearly doubled to 6 million acres.

I was struck by the testimony of Philip Rigdon of the Yakama Nation’s Department of Natural Resources.

Tribal forests comply with the same environmental laws, but fires on tribal lands are smaller and less costly to fight. Rigdon said wildfires spreading from unhealthy federal forests threaten tribal land, as well as harm hunting and fishing across the landscape.

He also showed a photo of tribal-managed forest adjoining Forest Service land with tribal land in far better shape. I’ve seen a similar pattern in Idaho, comparing state lands to federal forests.

Subcommittee Chairman Tom McClintock, R-Calif., noted that he speaks to Forest Service managers frustrated by legal and administrative roadblocks to good management. I’ve heard the same thing in Idaho.

There are solutions, starting with active management, more harvest, more thinning and efficient salvage after fire.

Americans deserve healthy forests. I will continue working with Congressman McClintock and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, on reforms to improve management, mitigate fire risk and prudently use our God-given natural resources.


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