ASPEN U.S. Rep. Mark Udall got into a heated exchange Thursday with a protester during a brief stop in Aspen.Udall, a Democrat from Eldorado Springs who is running for the U.S. Senate, was on a swing through the state, visiting various communities to talk about proposed legislation to deal with the growing threat from the mountain pine beetle infestation and other topics.But Thursday, Udall's plans were momentarily derailed when protester George Newell positioned himself behind the congressman, directly in line with cameras of local photographers. Newell carried a sign saying, "Dump Udall. He Votes For War" - a reference to Udall's recent vote for passage of a $100 billion war bill sought by President Bush.When one of Udall's staff tried to get Newell to step away, the protester reacted angrily, saying, "That's assault."When Udall joined in with a politely-phrased request to get out of the way, Newell responded, "That guy just tried to shove me out of the way." Newell and Udall then exchanged words about Udall's recent vote on the war funding bill.
"This guy just voted $100 billion for the war," Newell said, to which Udall responded that he also had recently voted "to protect civil liberties, which I have always supported." Udall said it was his position to "support the warriors, not the war," and told Newell, "You and I both agree the war ought to end."Again asking Newell to disengage, and getting another anti-war argument in return, Udall continued, "You end the war by tying the funding to a different direction, which I have voted consistently to do."The congressman then turned back to a waiting gathering of reporters to discuss the infestation of pine bark beetles that is laying waste to huge sections of the state's mountain forests and prompting growing fears of wildfires."We can't stop the march of the beetle," Udall proclaimed, explaining that the federal government can do something to reduce the risk of forest fires in the "red zones" that closely border communities surrounded by forests.He pointed to a bill that is in the early stages of consideration in Congress, the Colorado Forest Management Improvement Act of 2007, which he conceded is "as much about preventing catastrophic wildfires" as it is about forest health. Among other things, it calls for the creation of "fire-risk maps" to aid officials in determining which areas need the most help, and the quickest help.
The bill, which has the backing of the entire Colorado delegation on Capital Hill in Washington, D.C., would authorize the spending of $120 million over the next five years, $60 million to address fire threats and protect water supplies, and another $60 million on research and grants aimed at finding commercial uses for the "biomass" that would come from the thinning out of dying and dead timber. The bill, among other provisions, calls for an increase to the weight limit for logging trucks "so they can remove more trees," according to a fact sheet handed out by Udall's press liaison, Tara Trujillo.Part of the bill calls for the creation of "Healthy Forest Partnership Zones," in areas of particularly high fire threat, to enable local communities to work with private industry to diminish the fire danger through a forest thinning program.It also would include Colorado in a program called "fuels for schools," which is to "help schools use the downed trees as a heating and energy source," the fact sheet stated."We can't come up with enough cash" for the government to do everything necessary to protect communities from forest fires, Udall explained.Instead, the bill would provide tax incentives for private citizens to do the work on their own, in addition to the community efforts.
Plus, he said, the bill "helps cut the red tape" normally encountered with attempts to cut trees in the national forests, but only for the "red zones" that he said characteristically encompass areas within a mile of an urban boundary. Exactly how extensive the "thinning" will be, whether clear cuts or less comprehensive logging, should be left to forest experts, he said."In the end, Mother Nature bats last," Udall said. "We just want to keep the game going."On another topic, Udall said he generally supports the idea of using mass transit to solve transportation problems in the "rural resort communities" such as Aspen and the Interstate 70 ski towns, though he did not say exactly what kind of mass transit he would prefer.He also talked about his campaign for the U.S. Senate, promising that his first priority will be to take care of business in his role as a congressman, at least until the campaign season begins heating up next year.John Colson's e-mail address is email@example.com