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Western governors: 'Condition of Western forests has reached a crisis'

By Amy Joi O'Donoghue | Posted - Apr. 21, 2013 at 11:40 a.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Members of the Western Governors' Association, including Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, said forests are in such bad shape the federal government should turn to industry — like logging — for help.

"We have been concerned for some time that federal forest lands throughout the West are experiencing serious environmental stresses that affect the health and vitality of these ecosystems. They are overgrown; they exhibit all the symptoms of an unhealthy ecosystem; and they demand urgent attention."

That plea was penned in a letter the association sent this week to Tom Vilsack, the U.S. secretary of agriculture and the Cabinet-level appointee tasked with oversight of U.S. Forest Service management.

The association, which is chaired by Herbert, said the past 25 years have seen a shift in how federal dollars are directed to actual management of forests, with that share consistently dwindling.

"It is our understanding that in 2010 only about 30 percent of the total U.S. Forest Service budget was allocated to manage our national forests," the letter said. "In the mid-1980s, that number was closer to 70 percent. Most of the agency’s budget is spent on fire suppression, administrative support, research and other programs."

Our national forests are increasingly being managed like national parks — areas in which no timber harvesting is permitted.

–Lisa Murkowski, U.S. Senator

The letter said the condition of Western forests has reached a crisis, with millions of acres falling victim to bark beetle infestation and overgrowth. Those factors, coupled with drought, are causing wildfires to increase in frequency and intensity, sending fire suppression costs skyrocketing.

Not only does the association demand an accounting of how agency funds have been allocated, the group wants a state-by-state accounting of how many Forest Service acres will be addressed in the next five years through restoration strategies.

It asks Vilsack to convene a special forest industry task force to identify ways the timber industry can assist with forest management.

"Private sector forest professionals are a cost-effective tool that the U.S. Forest Service can utilize to handle this immense workload. They stand ready and willing to do so," the letter stated.

Ann Walker, who directs the association's forest and rangeland health section, said management of forests in the West has been a key issue for the group stretching back decades.

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"It has been a high priority," she said, noting that there has been longstanding bipartisan criticism that the Forest Service falls well short of managing forests in a balanced manner.

Just Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, blasted the agency, saying its budget proposals — which call for a 15 percent reduction in timber harvest — more closely resemble that of a park service than its multiple-use mission.

“Our national forests are increasingly being managed like national parks — areas in which no timber harvesting is permitted,” Murkowski said. “The Forest Service must return to its multiple-use mission. The economic viability of hundreds of communities located next to national forests depends on the responsible production of our timber resources.”

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