McInnis: Enviros fueling risks of wildfire | AspenTimes.com

McInnis: Enviros fueling risks of wildfire

U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis blasted “America’s army of environmental litigants” Thursday for using lawsuits to block timber sales and inadvertently boosting the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

Environmentalists fired back charges that McInnis and his allies were engaged in a thinly disguised effort to clear the way for more logging in national forests. Much of that logging has little to do with reducing fire risks in forests near homes and communities, they claimed.

McInnis, a Grand Junction Republican whose third district includes the Roaring Fork Valley, presided over a hearing Thursday in Washington on the advantages and disadvantages of aggressive forest management. He is chairman of the House Resources’ Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health.

In his opening comments, McInnis attacked environmentalists for using appeals and litigation to “box in” the U.S. Forest Service and prevent thinning of fuels in the national forests.

He cited a Forest Service study released Wednesday that contends half of “mechanical thinning projects” were appealed or litigated, mainly by environmental groups.

“As I have said previously, for all those who have been ringing their hands about how the appeals problem was overhyped and overblown by folks like me, this data was a bucket of cold water in the face,” McInnis said.

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“It shows nothing less than a systematic campaign on the part of a few ideological purists to either slow or stop the thinning of overgrown forests,” he continued. “There is no question in my mind that these myopic few are out of step with the will of the American people.”

The environmentalists aren’t responsible for the discarded cigarette butts or lightning strikes that have started the blazes, McInnis said, but their “neglectful posture has turned our forests into a fuel-rich tinderbox.”

McInnis anticipated that the validity of the study would be challenged – and it was almost immediately – so he asked the General Accounting Office, the investigatory branch of Congress, to do its own analysis.

“In the meantime, anyone who is tired of the federal government spending hundreds of millions of dollars on fire suppression, tired of seeing communities threatened, tired of seeing smoke-congested air and soot-filled rivers and streams – you should be outraged,” McInnis charged.

Environmentalists were certainly outraged. The report that McInnis used for his data was “about as phony as an Arthur Andersen accounting statement,” according to Ted Zukoski of the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies.

A coalition of conservation groups countered that reports show that 89 percent of fuel-reduction projects in Colorado and the rest of the Rocky Mountain region went through without appeal in 2001 and 2002.

The Forest Service skewed the outcome of its study by including appeals of logging projects that had nothing to do with fuel reduction, the coalition claimed.

Jamey Fidel of the Aspen Wilderness Workshop said fighting logging projects designed to reduce fire fuels “hasn’t been on the front of our agenda.” Its biggest concern about logging is the effect on old-growth forests.

The wilderness workshop was one of three groups that filed a lawsuit in February to try to block a timber sale on 2,900 acres in the Baylor Park area of Four Mile Canyon near Sunlight Mountain Resort. Sopris District Ranger Bill Westbrook approved logging of an area where fallen trees covered hundreds of acres.

Environmentalists sued, Fidel said, because the project affected a roadless area and its effects on wildlife weren’t well enough known. He wonders if McInnis’ real strategy is to make timber sales like Baylor Park easier to push through.

“I fear these types of projects are being lumped in for political gain,” said Fidel.

Appeals or litigation are successful in about 50 percent of the cases, according to conservation groups. That proves that laws are being violated because the decisions are overturned, Fidel said.

“The accusation that environmentalists file an appeal to delay is unfair,” he said.

He said Aspen Wilderness Workshop won’t be intimated from using appeals and lawsuits when it feels timber sales were ill-advised. That won’t include projects where fuel reduction is the legitimate goal, Fidel claimed.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.]

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