Wildfires spark debate

Lawmakers say changes needed; Forest Service says it's doing its best with available funds

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Brad Corkill is fuming over the wildfires that have devastated the Northwest this summer.

"In my opinion, these fires are completely avoidable," said Corkill, owner of Whiteman Lumber Co. in Cataldo and an Idaho Fish and Game commissioner.

"The Coeur d'Alene and St. Joe national forests have not had a major fire since the early 30s. These forests were, until 1993, two of the most heavily managed in the entire U.S. Forest Service system. They were logged in a responsible, professional manner."

Corkill is a 40-year veteran of the timber industry, including 37 of those years in North Idaho. He believes changes in forest management over the past 20 years have led to wildfires raging out of control this summer.

"The road system was well-maintained (years ago) so, if a fire did break out it, it could be accessed and dealt with," Corkill said. "Now those roads are being eliminated ... ."

Corkill said the Coeur d'Alene and St. Joe rivers were known as world-class trout fisheries, but cringes at the thought of what they may be like next spring after this summer's fires.

Jason Kirchner, public affairs officer with the U.S. Forest Service's Idaho Panhandle National Forest, said his agency has been dealing with 70 different fires over 35,000 acres in the Idaho Panhandle this summer.

He said the USFS is doing the best it can with forest management with the funding it receives, but funding has decreased 10 to 30 percent per year since 2012.

"We've done a great job with management with the budgets we've received," he said. "We've been more efficient with our dollars than what Congress expected. With that said, we can only do what we're funded to do. Most federal budgets have decreased, and ours have been among them."

Kirchner said forest management is an "enormous" task that also includes restoring watersheds and wildlife habitat, hazardous fuel reduction and prescribed burns.

"There's more to forest management than just logs," he said. "The American people have an expectation to do more than logging, and that's reflected by the budget our forests receive from Congress."

In addition to taking care of natural resources, the USFS is the largest firefighting agency in the nation, Kirchner said.

He said most of the region's wildfires have been lightning-caused.

"We're never going to be able to avoid wildfires," he said. "This is also not a national forest problem. There have also been major fires on BLM lands, state lands and private timberlands. This is not unique to federal lands."

Kirchner said citizens are encouraged to be involved in forest management through collaborative groups and comment periods.

"We ask the public to help us drive projects - not just when projects are proposed but year-round," he said. "We want healthy national forests."

Suzanne Wrasse, a spokeswoman in office of Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said simply increasing the Forest Service budget will not decrease fire severity.

She said Risch has and will continue to support efforts that will increase forest management on federal lands, including the Farm Bill that was signed into law that gives the USFS the ability to use a categorical exclusion under the National Environmental Policy Act for the treatment of forests that have or will be prone to disease and insect infestation.

"The implementation of this authority needs to be expanded greatly," Wrasse said. "We have a tremendous amount of natural resources in Idaho. These resources can be and should be harvested in a sustainable manner to restore forest health. The status quo leads to stand-replacing crown fires and the worst air quality in the country."

Rep. Ral Labrador, R-Idaho, wrote via email he agrees that a lack of forest management has increased the frequency and intensity of the fires as USFS timber harvests have declined 80 percent in the past three decades, leaving forests unhealthy and dense with fuel that leads to catastrophic fires.

"The core of the problem is a burdensome statutory and regulatory framework that invites legal challenges that interfere with good management," Labrador wrote, adding that the USFS acknowledged the problem in its own 2002 report called "The Process Predicament" that concluded the agency has had trouble fulfilling its mission.

Labrador wrote that states are more capable of forest management, which is why he reintroduced this session the Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act, which would establish pilot projects to allow states to manage as much as 2 percent of USFS lands. The same bill passed the House in 2013, but the Senate did not consider it.

Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, is the author of the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act co-sponsored by Labrador and being considered by the House Resources Committee. The bill - which has a companion bill in the Senate that's co-authored by Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon - would allow disaster relief funds to pay for catastrophic wildfire suppression costs and ensure the USFS would have more funds for fuels reduction and other prevention work.

Lawmakers say forest management legislation being floated eliminates "fire borrowing," which occurs when funds are taken from the USFS fire prevention budget to cover the costs of fighting fires. That situation has kept the agency from getting out ahead of wildland fires, lawmakers say.

Nick Goulette, project director of the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, said homeowners and landowners also need to take responsibility to ensure their property is cleared of fuels as that practice can save homes.

No one at the Kootenai Environmental Alliance in Coeur d'Alene could be reached for comment on Thursday and Friday.

Corkill said responsible forest management is needed. And he believes that should be left to forest professionals, not attorneys involved in environmental lawsuits. He said the time to act on forest management is long overdue.

"People can rant and rave about global warming being the cause of the fires, but the real reason is there is so much fuel out there and the reason for that is because the forest is not being managed," Corkill said. "This is an irresponsible waste of a national resource. It seems it is acceptable to let a tree burn, but not acceptable to harvest a tree to build someone a house."

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