The past two fire seasons have shown the devastating consequences of letting our Southwestern forests become overgrown. Now we're about to see the fiscal impact of this legacy of mismanagement, including a reduction of services and facilities that the public has come to expect on our national forests.
Recently on these pages Harv Forsgren, Southwest regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service, outlined the agency's three-pronged “Central Priority” for returning our overgrown and disease-infested woodlands to health: thin out small-diameter trees and scrub near populated areas; let some fires in remote areas burn themselves out; and involve forest industries in thinning to keep costs to taxpayers down.
There has been broad consensus on the first two objectives but a lot of opposition to the third. Forest industries have been all but chased out of the Southwest over the past 15 years by an avalanche of lawsuits and administrative appeals filed by radical environmental groups. Some of those groups oppose any involvement whatsoever by the timber industry, which would burden taxpayers with the full cost of returning the forests to health.
But as Forsgren pointed out, the cost would be prohibitive and stall thinning operations to a snail's pace. As it is, services that the public is accustomed to on our forests may have to be curtailed in order to pay for the Central Priority:
“Unfortunately, the result is that in the foreseeable future there will be a reduction or elimination of some services that forest users have come to expect,” Forsgren stated. “Campgrounds may open later in the season and close earlier. Trails, roads and facilities may not be maintained to a level to which we are accustomed. Requests for permits or information may take longer.”
But Forsgren told the Tribune he sees a ray of hope. He said several of the major environmental groups have accepted invitations to participate in drafting stewardship contracts that allow forest industries to participate in thinning operations under carefully controlled conditions. The contracts reduce taxpayer costs, speed the crucial thinning operations and protect the forests from unrestricted timber harvesting.
We would like to see more such cooperative efforts and less obstructionism by environmental groups. We all should be able to agree on the common goals of healthy forests that are also accessible to the public. As Forsgren points out, closely supervised forest industry participation in the stewardship process is essential to reaching those goals quickly and economically.