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Opinion: Super fires across the West have many causes, but one gets little attention

Former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and ranch owner Louis Bacon say super fires should not be the new normal

The western wildfires the past two years have been horrible and tragic.

Last year in southern Colorado we experienced our third-largest fire ever with the Spring Fire in Costilla and Huerfano counties, destroying 150 homes and buildings and burning over 100,000 acres of forest.

Ken Salazar

Meanwhile, this year in California, thousands of people have been displaced and millions have been buffeted by smoke and haze, including more than 5,000 forced from their homes recently in Santa Barbara.

There are a variety of causes for the super fires besetting the western United States, including weather, climate change, topography and forest composition. But one cause that has not received enough attention — or blame — is policy failure.

Louis Bacon

The regular thinning of forests is key to maintaining overall forest health and preventing catastrophic wildfire that terrorizes human and animal populations and destroys habit.

But absent a “forest health czar,” there is scant leadership guiding public policy on this issue. Even if there was such a post, with the byzantine local, state and federal regulations on public lands and inconsistent buy-in from private property owners, who would want it?

Instead, we need to make — and repeatedly remake — the case that forest thinning, and prescribed burning where appropriate, is in our forests’ best interest. Only as people and government leaders start to recognize the importance of proactive forest management, will policies coalesce around effective ways to protect us from wildfire.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

In New Mexico, we saw a potential policy failure play out that could have laid the groundwork for catastrophe. 

In a lawsuit to protect the Mexican spotted owl, a judge had stopped all forest thinning and fire prevention work in Carson National Forest — a magnificent 1.5 million-acre national treasure with big game, tall mountains and lush forests — for up to six months. 

The work was critical to preparing Carson for weather conditions conducive to wildfire. While forest health management and species protection are both vitally important to ecosystem management, this was a case of unintended consequences waiting to happen, with potentially devastating outcomes for New Mexican communities and water systems.

Fortunately, the U.S. Forest Service, the plaintiff and others negotiated a solution, and the judge  lifted many of the restrictions.

Forestry management practices at Trinchera Blanca Ranch in Colorado’s San Luis Valley offer valuable lessons in how consistent, holistic forest health practices can help protect a forest from severe fire damage. 

MORE: This Colorado ranch-made-lab is turning beetle-kill trees into lumber in the name of forest health

While last year’s Spring Fire burned just over 9,000 acres of Trinchera Blanca Ranch – the largest contiguous private land holding in the state of Colorado, it burned at a lower, slower rate because trees in that area had been thinned under the direction of forest experts.

The Spring Fire ruined many lives and properties, and the impact will be felt for years to come. Thankfully, Trinchera was spared the worst of it. It’s our hope that regular thinning and other forest management practices will be adopted on additional public and private lands, as an effective firewall to stop super fires from destroying entire landscapes and the jobs and communities they support.

What works on Trinchera Blanca Ranch will not necessarily work in Northern New Mexico or Northern California or places in-between. But lining up local circumstances with science, best practices and political will can make the difference between a manageable fire season and one that’s out of control.

Forests in the American West have not been managed correctly for over a hundred years. We have allowed trees to grow too close together. And we have snuffed out fires that should have been allowed to burn to clear out dense growth, reinvigorate the soil, and continue the forest regeneration cycle that existed for millennia.

Federal, state and local officials need to coordinate their policies and collaborate with private landowners, because forests, watersheds and fires do not care about property lines. 

We must arm nonprofits like The Nature Conservancy, New Mexico’s Rio Grande Water Fund and the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, as well as state and federal land management organizations with more tools and funding necessary to increase prescribed burning and select thinning on our public lands, while supporting groups like the Western Landowners Alliance to educate private landowners on forest management best practices. And we need to recruit more people to the cause in city halls, statehouses and the U.S. Capitol.

We should not accept super fires as the new normal. With the images still fresh in our minds, we need to come together to fight wildfires with innovative techniques that protect our homes, businesses and lives by restoring health to our forests. 

Ken Salazar served as U.S. Secretary of Interior, Colorado U.S. Senator and Attorney General. Mr. Salazar led the creation of the Great Outdoors Colorado Trust Fund and the America’s Great Outdoors Council. Louis Bacon is the founder of Moore Capital Management, LP and founder and chairman of The Moore Charitable Foundation. He is a conservation philanthropist and the owner of Trinchera Blanca Ranch.

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