The Western Governors Association held a workshop in Missoula, Montana September 20-21, 2016 on the National Forest and Rangeland Management Initiative. There were a series of panels discussing how to effectively manage our forests. Much of this is fueled by concerns for fires. Many groups from all parts of the west came to share their stories.
In the Bitterroot Valley of Montana there was a project that was discussed by one panel that was particularly compelling. They talked about the years of collaborative effort to come up with a project called the Westside Collaborative Vegitation Project. It was designed to thin the forest to improve forest spacing and overall health with a focus on restoration. These efforts would reduce the fuels that would mitigate the risk of uncharacteristic wildfire.
Unfortunately, they didn’t get to it in time. The Roaring Lion fire started on July 31st 2016. It burned about half of the Westside project. Even worse is that 16 families lost their homes. The project was set to sell before October this same year. Now the conditions have changed and there’s a new evaluation of what is going to be done with the remaining portion of the project.
This a reoccurring situation in much of the fire-prone forests of the western states. It’s unacceptable. We need to speed this process up and get to work. Not only do we spend all that time and cost in preparing those projects, but when the fires gets there before the treatment the cost goes through the roof. Many of these projects in the west are net positive financially. The fire fighting cost of the Roaring Lion fire were well over $5 million plus the loss of property and negative environmental impacts.
Fires aren’t going away and that’s not the purpose of managing our national forests. The purpose is to get them into a condition that allows the fires to behave like they have historically. These are burns that don’t kill all the mature trees as they burn the understory grass and brush. These post treatment fires can be beneficial for the landscape, helping reduce fuels and rejuvenate new growth. Forest fires that burn in the understory are much easier and safer to manage as well.
Many other topics were discussed like fire borrowing, legislative forest reforms, lawsuit reforms, and the need for more milling infrastructure. Hopefully our Western Governors hear what was said and turn it into action that will help our forests and our communities. It’s a worthwhile cause that needs change.