I recently moderated a forum for City Club of Boise featuring U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. Tidwell grew up in Boise before his family moved to Spokane, where he graduated from high school. He took classes at both the University of Idaho and WSU and received a degree in range science from WSU.
At a time when federal funding is threatened, forest fires are on the increase, forest restoration needs are growing, and timber harvests on federal lands have declined, it is a challenging time to be the head of the Forest Service.
Idaho has a greater share of its land mass in national forests than any other state. 38% of Idaho is part of the national forest system. Of Idaho’s 20.4 million acres of national forest land, an estimated 15 million acres are overgrown and vulnerable to the risk of wildfires. Last summer’s fires burned 1.7 million acres of forest and rangeland. The Forest Service spends 42% of its budget on firefighting and nearly one-third of its employees are firefighters.
Tidwell says that in recent years the annual acreage burned by wildfires has increased dramatically and has burned in excess of 8 million acres six times since 2004 and could reach 12 to 15 million acres in the near future. In addition, 30,000 homes have been destroyed in the last ten years, including 3,000 this year. Fire seasons are also running 60-70 days longer than before, with the days over when snows came in September and ended the fire season. Causes for this dramatic increase include past forest management practices, insect infestations and climate change.
Tidwell says that the Forest Service in now making forest restoration one of its highest priorities. Forest restoration includes hazardous fuels reduction, protection and restoration of critical habitat, including riparian areas and watersheds. In areas where restoration has taken place, oncoming fires drop from the crowns and become more manageable.
As an example of the benefits of fuel reduction, Tidwell said that this year’s Mustang Complex Fire north of Salmon covered 340,000 acres and that the work done on a logging project in the area helped fire fighters keep the fire from engulfing U.S. 93, the primary highway route in that
part of the state. (more…)