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.
Tidwell said that he uses Idaho as an example of how things can be done. He cited two major successful restoration efforts in Idaho: Selway-Middle Fork, Weiser- Little Salmon Headwaters. Using these as examples, he tells others around the country that “If we can do it in Idaho, we can do it anywhere.”
He said that the Forest Service is also working to increase timber cuts and expects an increase of 20% in the next two years. When asked about the long history of law suits by environmental groups attempting to block timber cuts, he said that it is much less of a problem today than
it was in the past. A major reason for this reduction in lawsuits is an increased emphasis on collaborative efforts such as the Clearwater Basin Collaborative. Nationally, the Forest Service is working on bringing together timber industry executive, environmental leaders, and state and
local officials to increase forest restoration and watershed improvements, as well as increasing timber harvests.
With respect to climate change, Tidwell says that we should prepare for more significant effects. One of the most obvious effects is the severity of infestations from mountain pine beetles. They are at the most severe level ever and increasing. The growing length of fire seasons is also an indicator of climate change. And in the future we should expect to see some timber species that are native to Idaho beginning to disappear from the Idaho landscape.
But the next chapter on the work of the Forest Service will likely be written by federal budge appropriators. As the range of options for reducing the deficit are weighed, significant reductions in discretionary spending are likely to come to the forefront and the Forest Service is viewed as a discretionary program. One of the leading conservative think tanks, the Cato Institute, suggests that Congress should eliminate federal funding for the Forest Service and allow the department to charge fair market value for timber cutting, recreational uses and other uses for Forest Service Land. Not something that would prove popular in the western U.S.
These are interesting times for the Forest Service.
Marty Peterson grew up in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley. He is retired and lives in Boise.Share on Facebook