September 20, 2006

AFTER THE FIRE

By Idaho Senator Mike Crapo

In early August, I toured active fire sites in Idaho. Even then, before increased fire activity late in the month, it was easy to predict what September would look like: the fires multiplied and are still burning today. These disasters reinforce the fact that responsible forest management must happen before and after the fires. Idaho and the West are experiencing the worst fire season on record. Idahoâ??s rainfall is less this year than any year since recordkeeping began in 1895. As of September 19, more than 82,000 wildfires have consumed more than 8.8 million acres nationwide this year alone; Idaho ranks third this year in number of acres burned. We all know the tragic outcome of unplanned wildland fire: destroyed property, degraded air quality, fish and wildlife habitat damage and safety threats to lives and communities. Fire plays a valuable role in our ecosystem; however, in many cases we arenâ??t talking about normal, healthy, ecosystems. Fires resulting from unnatural fuel loads do tremendous damage to our forests. With the current state of our forests, this happens all too often. In 2003, Congress enacted the Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HFRA) to improve forest management. HFRA provides federal land managers with tools necessary to focus forest health improvements on sensitive rural-urban interface areas, near municipal water sources, in threatened and endangered species habitat, and where disease or insect infestations threaten adjacent private lands. Progress is being made to limit risk on federal lands. Unfortunately, the process of treating forests for fuels reduction is lengthy and often stymied by lawsuits. While the critical work of HFRA is implemented, additional storms, fires and other natural events are contributing to the backlog of more than one million acres of national forests in need of reforestation. We have a situation that applies not just to fires, but to the aftermath of other catastrophic natural disasters, such as the tornado that tore through Idahoâ??s Payette National Forest in June ruining nearly 5,000 acres of public and private forested land. Catastrophic destruction can happen slowly as well: insect infestation is all too evident in the tell-tale dead and dying timber peppering our forests. The forested acres affected by these events will remain in danger even after the flames are extinguished.On August 2, I held a hearing on the Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act of 2006 (FERRA). Federal officials, local and state leaders, scientists, foresters, the environmental community and private interest groups testified at the hearing, and Iâ??m convinced that the tools in FERRA are needed to address this crisis in our woods. FERRA looks toward restoration by providing federal land managers with tools to respond immediately following forest disaster, limiting the negative effects on neighboring communities. This forward planning means disaster recovery plans that contain pre-approved management practices. Additionally, FERRA requires forest health partnerships with colleges and universities when establishing post-catastrophe research projects and requires development of independent, third-party peer-reviewed research protocols.FERRA recognizes that without responsible and responsive recovery efforts in the immediate aftermath of disaster, a forest becomes more susceptible to additional fire and pest outbreaks that threaten families and wildlife that live in and around our natural resources. As we work to rebuild after the worst forest fire season in years, we need to take stock of what is working and what isnâ??t. We must continue to implement the good work that HFRA directs, and we must complete the cycle of responsible forest management with effective post-disaster recovery that reduces the risk of devastation in the future. This recovery must begin when the last flame dies out, not a moment later. WORD COUNT: 598