Western Governors Discuss Fires, Tourism, Energy

By Beacon Staff

COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho – Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said Thursday that one of her biggest fears when she became chief executive of the state two years ago was a devastating wildfire.

That concern came to life this year as nearly 1 million acres of Arizona burned in wildfires that included the largest such blaze in the state’s history.

“One percent of the total land mass of Arizona has already burned in this fire season alone, and the season is not over yet,” said Brewer, speaking at the Western Governors’ Association annual meeting.

Also at Thursday’s sessions, Washington state Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire succeeded Idaho Republican Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter as chair of the association. Gregoire said she would push a program called “Get Out West!” intended to get children outdoors and draw tourists to the region.

“If we really want our children to have the values they should have, we have got to get them outdoors,” Gregoire said.

An afternoon session also dealt with difficulties in building transmission lines to get the West’s abundant power generation resources to the rest of the nation.

“We’ve got to do something to get transmission lines built in this country,” said Montana Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

Major barriers include getting permits to build on government lands and public opposition to power lines in residential areas, he said.

As for the wildfires blazing around the region, Undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Harris Sherman told governors that fires are becoming bigger and more destructive because of a combination of factors including drought, insect infestations and disease.

He said potential solutions include expensive practices like controlled burns, thinning and pest control.

U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, suggested that locally controlled land would be better maintained to prevent fires and called for the federal government to transfer authority.

“States and local governments are closest to the land and better suited to manage it,” he said.

Hastings also said 88 percent of the land in the 12 westernmost states is under federal control. He called on the government to allow more domestic energy production, timber harvesting and grazing on those lands.

For his part, Schweitzer questioned whether states could afford to manage federal lands that had a big backlog of maintenance needs.

“I’m not sure I could turn a profit on forest land that has been managed by the federal government,” the Montana governor said.

Brewer, a Republican, also said that drought is fueling the devastating fires in her region.

She noted that Arizona averages about 180,000 acres of wildfires per year. But this year the state has had 923,000 acres burn — or 1,100 square miles.

Brewer said the burned land will be susceptible to flooding during the rainy season. She called on the federal government to create a better process to allow burned timber to be salvage logged and to plant new forests.

“We need to better manage the forests to prevent this from happening again,” Brewer said. “Forest restoration or thinning is key to preventing these disasters.”

But it is also very expensive.

Sherman, of the agriculture department, said it can cost up to $2,000 per acre to thin forest land, or up to $200 per acre to have a controlled burn.

“You take 80 million acres of national forest land in desperate need of restoration, and it is a staggering figure,” he said.

Sherman agreed that dry conditions have led to big fire years in New Mexico, Texas and Florida this year, conforming to the trend of the past decade.

He said the period from 2000 to 2010 has seen total wildfire losses of 7 million acres per year, far more than in previous years. He added that nearly 5 million acres have already burned this year.

“Fires are larger and more intense that we have seen in the past,” Sherman said, including far more fires of more than 100,000 acres each.

Sherman also noted that bark beetles, which thrive in warmer winters, are a major cause because they kill trees and make them more susceptible to fire. He added that about 41 million acres of western forests are infested.

Sherman said the federal government must find ways to spend less on environmental studies, which cost $350 million per year, and more to make actual land improvements.

“Random acts of conservation are not enough,” he said.

The federal government did offer a bit of help Thursday, as the governors’ association and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced an agreement for improving weather reports to Western states. They committed to improve the development, coordination and dissemination of climate information.

“When it comes to climate, Western governors know full well that access to timely and accurate information saves lives and property and helps local businesses,” said Jane Lubchenco, NOAA administrator.