Cory Gardner is on fire. More than two hundred homes and thousands of acres of forests went up in flames in his district in the past few weeks, and the freshman congressman from Colorado knows exactly who and what to blame. Not drought, not climate change, not even the bark-beetle epidemic that's killed millions of trees.
Nope. It's the goldarn gubberment's fault. "We have a situation once again where Washington is fiddling while our states are burning," he declared at a hearing last week.
Gardner's not-so-slow burn was ignited by comments from Bureau of Land Management officials, who dared express reservations about certain provisions of H.R. 6089, the Healthy Forest Management Act of 2012. Sponsors of the bill, which would expand the ability of state officials to respond to wildfire threats, include Gardner and fellow Colorado Republicans Scott Tipton, Doug Lamborn and Mike Coffman.
The bill builds on the Bush-era "Healthy Forests Initiative" of 2003, a response to 2002 wildfires that called for more intensive thinning of forests as a fire-prevention program. That initiative was strongly backed by timber interests; critics, including environmental interests, dubbed it the "No Tree Left Behind Act" and feared that the true objective was to weaken forest management practices and open remote areas to logging.
Proponents of H.R. 6089 say it will give state officials more flexibility to remove beetle-killed stands of dead trees and reduce fire risks. Department of the Interior officials, though, are troubled by some of the language in the bill, including a provision that allows states to designate areas as "high-risk" for fires for twenty years. A two-decade declaration of a state of emergency seems a bit excessive, they suggest.
"I am stunned by the callousness of the Department of the Interior's objections," Gardner declared at the Natural Resources Committee hearing last week, and proceeded to light into Bureau of Land Management assistant director Ed Roberson, claiming his agency wasn't doing enough to get beetle-killed tinder out of his district.
Gardner and his allies contend, not without justification, that decades of largely passive federal forest management policies have contributed to vast stands of overgrown, homogenous trees ripe for conflagration. But as pointed out in last month's cover story, "The Beetle and the Damage Done," the factors involved in the beetle epidemic (which has been spreading across the West since the mid-1990s) and our latest round of fires are more complicated than that.
Experts agree that drought is a primary accelerator of beetle kill as well as fire risk -- but that doesn't mean beetle-killed trees are any more susceptible to fire than dry green ones. (At least one study indicates parched live trees are much more volatile.) And while there's no absence of dead wood in Colorado's forests that the Forest Service regards as ripe for removal and repurposing, there's also a school of thought that says dead snags should be left alone (good for wildlife habitat and overall forest ecology) and that even so-called catastrophic wildfires are a necessary part of rejuvenation in the forest cycle. The problem, of course, is when those fires reach the wild-urban interface, as in the High Park and Waldo Canyon fires. But short of clear-cutting, it's not clear that the designation of a "high risk" area would have made any difference there .
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So what's Gardner fired up about? See for yourself in the video below.
More from our Calhoun: Wake-Up Call archive: "Cory Gardner talks energy prices, takes lobbyist cash."