Forest industry key to healthy forests

DENVER — With fires still burning in one of the most active fire seasons in Colorado history, state leaders convened Friday to see what can be done about overgrown forests.

They generally agreed that the Mountain West needs a healthier logging industry, but solutions are elusive because of a booming human population in the forests, tight budgets and political gridlock.

“Clearly we need to have a stronger forest industry to maintain our healthy forests,” said Gov. John Hickenlooper.

He’s hopeful that the state’s biggest sawmill, in Montrose, will reopen soon, and that another new mill will open in Wyoming.

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said he has gone through a personal evolution to realize “not every tree is in the right spot.”

The West needs a solid logging industry because the federal government does not have the money to thin overgrown forests on its own, Udall said.

Udall, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack lamented Congress’ delay in passing the farm bill, which increases funding to clear out beetle-killed trees and authorizes long-term logging contracts.

The bill has passed the Senate but not the House.

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, touted his own bill, which would allow governors and county commissioners to identify forests that need thinning and speed up logging in those areas. It has passed a committee but not the full House.

State politicians also offered ideas.

One idea is to align plans for job growth, energy production and logging, said state Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village.

The Forest Service has tens of thousands of slash piles sitting in the forests. If private companies could use that dead wood, they could generate energy and heat. Biomass power stations could also be paired with sawmills, Schwartz said.

“One person’s waste becomes another person’s fuel or heat,” she said.

Aside from politics, participants said part of the problem is human behavior.

Udall pointed out that around 40 percent of Coloradans live in the fire-prone wildland-urban interface, and many of them don’t even know it.

State Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, said she knows how scary fires are because her family had to evacuate during the Missionary Ridge fire 10 years ago. But people like to pretend the peril isn’t so great.

“People like to forget. I think of the Hayman Fire and Missionary Ridge, and how quickly we put that behind us when the signs are all around us (that the danger remains),” Roberts said.