Students get close look at forest controversy | AspenTimes.com

Students get close look at forest controversy

High school students from Aspen and Glenwood Springs probably gained more insight into forest fire management Thursday than the congressmen who will settle the controversy this year.

Students learned that firefighters would welcome a forest-thinning plan that would boost prevention and assist battles against big blazes. Frankie Romero, a federal agency fire chief for the Western Slope, said directors would much rather send crews to fight fires in thinned-forest stands one mile or so away from populated areas than try to battle them when they are licking a town’s perimeter.

He said he couldn’t count the gray hairs he gained when slurry bombers made their drops just outside of West Glenwood Springs while the Coal Seam fire threatened the town last June. Digging crews in around homes and other buildings is a dangerous way to protect lives and property.

“This moat-around-the-castle idea I don’t like,” he said.

Romero was one of four guest speakers addressing the science classes of Susy Ellison at Yampa Mountain High School and Marc Whitley of Aspen High School Thursday.

After hearing the perspectives of an environmentalist, logger and representative of Congressman Scott McInnis, as well as Romero, the students were flown above areas blackened by the Coal Seam fire and Panorama fire in Missouri Heights.

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The flights and presentations were sponsored by EcoFlight, an environmental organization founded by Aspenite Bruce Gordon. He coordinates flights for reporters, lawmakers and students so they can gain a different perspective on environmental debates.

The presentation seemed particularly relevant at the Yampa Mountain school. The Coal Seam fire burned within 100 yards of the school. Green grass is thriving where oak brush was fried to a crisp four months ago.

McInnis is at the center of the national debate on forest thinning because he is the chief sponsor of the Healthy Forests and Wildfire Risk Reduction Act.

In a nutshell, that proposed bill would speed the Forest Service’s ability to implement forest-thinning projects, and it would boost money available for hazardous fuel reduction to about $7 billion over the next 10 years.

The bill requires that no less than 70 percent of the funds be spent reducing fuels in what is known as the wildland-urban interface, or the wooded lands near populated areas.

McInnis’ bill passed an important first test earlier this month when it was approved 23-14 by the House Resources Committee. It received bipartisan support. However, McInnis is seeking further compromises to assure success when the full House votes on the measure, according to Holly Stevens, his representative at the high school presentation.

But decreasing the fire hazard won’t be as easy as passing a bill in Congress. Doug Farris, a valley native and longtime logger, said the commercial harvest value is extremely low in many of the areas that would be targeted for reduction of hazardous fuels.

The Coal Seam fire, for example, burned in areas with little commercial quality of timber and high costs of removal because of steep terrain. He estimated that no more than 10 percent of the area affected by the Coal Seam fire would have been attractive enough for a commercial timber sale.

He stressed that removing hazardous fuels is going to require taxpayer expenditures. The federal government’s proposals for timber sales won’t be attractive enough to lure commercial loggers to work in many of the areas that need treatment.

Timber sales are more attractive in higher elevations, usually away from the wildland-urban interface, Farris said. In those areas, he believes logging has provided a benefit by thinning forests and reducing the risks of wildfire spreading.

In the Roaring Fork Valley and other parts of Colorado, commercial logging is also losing viability because there are so few saw mills. Opening them locally isn’t viable because of environmental concerns and land costs, Farris noted.

“As far as commercial logging, it’s dying out around here,” he said.

Sloan Shoemaker of the Aspen Wilderness Workshop told the students that the forest-thinning program would have the support of environmentalists ? as long as it stays away from forest interiors. The best use of that $7 billion is to create defensible spaces around homes and thinning hazardous fuels in the interface areas, Shoemaker said.

Environmentalists have charged that McInnis’ plan allows too much logging in forest interiors under the cloak of improving fire safety. They also oppose provisions that would shorten the amount of time the public would have to comment on proposed thinning projects.

Congress is unlikely to vote on the measure until after the Nov. 5 elections.

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

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