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November 13, 2012 11:21 am

EDITORIAL: Working together to reduce wildfires

Written by Tessa Schweigert

Last week’s election showed Americans just how divided our nation has become. That makes bipartisan efforts in the days that follow all the more important and encouraging.

Just a couple of days after a divisive Election Day, six senators — three Republicans, three Democrats — joined in asking for more work to reduce wildfire risks.

Wyoming’s senators Mike Enzi and John Barrasso, both Republicans, signed a joint letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, along with senators from Colorado and South Dakota.

It may seem like a small bipartisan initiative, but it’s a vital issue for those of us in the West.

In one of the most severe fire seasons on record, wildfires scorched the drought-ridden West this year, burning nearly 1.2 million acres across the Rocky Mountain region. In Wyoming alone, it cost $100 million to fight fires in 2012.

The smoke that hung in the Powell Valley for weeks on end exhibited the severity of fires elsewhere.

Though our northwest corner of the state fared much better than others in the region, we know the risk is high in our forests, too. Between beetles and drought, our forests must remain a priority in the West in coming years.

Recognizing the risk of catastrophic wildfires, the bipartisan group of senators asked Secretary Vilsack to use the timber industry to help reduce the risk of wildfires. Such an approach, they say, would also boost jobs.

“We are at a critical juncture. With historically overgrown forests, a continuing drought, vast stretches of beetle-kill forest and more people living in fire zones, we need to work expeditiously to promote ecological restoration,” the senators wrote.

In a presentation last week, staffers with Ecosystem Research Group — a consultant working for local counties and conservation districts — said it’s a “big pivot point” in planning for the future of one local forest. ERG made the case that with climate change and other factors spelling more wildfires, the new Shoshone National Forest plan should consider more timber harvesting now to reduce fire-fighting costs later. Timber harvesting can bring impacts to other resources, like plants and wildlife, but ERG’s presentation brought up possible new approaches to reduce its impact, like temporary roads.

No one group or idea is enough to single-handedly solve an issue as complex and challenging as forest management and wildfire risk. That’s exactly why we need everyone — including Republican and Democratic senators — working together.

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