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Opinion: An old idea can reduce wildfires — and teach job skills to thousands

A Civilian Conservation Corps to restore forest health in the age of climate change

It is not and ought not be beyond the conceivable that the United States could revive the idea of a Civilian Conservation Corps that would engage people to help maintain and preserve our forests.

These past summers have shown us that the systems whereby we have been managing our forests aren’t working.  The result is that for the past few summers, the nation has lost thousands of homes and millions of acres of precious forest land. Toxic wildfire smoke has spread all across the country from the states of California, Oregon and Washington to the East coast.

Climate Change has exacerbated the problem. The prognosis is for these devastating fire storms to continue.

Then, too, there is an over-abundance of dead fuel in our forests. This plague of downed trees and burn scars has created conditions that impact drinking water. Toxic trace metals from dead pines are leaching into the soil, affecting aquifers and streams. Fire-fighters warn us that fire seasons are beginning much earlier and continuing much later in the year, making fire-fighting operations nearly a year-round challenge.

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This past summer, forest fires in Oregon consumed more than 660 square miles of fir trees, grasslands, sagebrush and meadows. They killed thousands of animals, wild and domestic, and burned up millions of feet of board lumber. Oregon Congressman Cliff Bentz described one further environmental impact: “The fire released hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon, which had been and could have remained sequestered indefinitely.”

The conditions to create much of this oversized bounty of dead forest fuel were set years ago at the onset of the mountain pine beetle outbreak across Colorado, 10 other states, plus a huge swath of western Canada. The bug feasted on unhealthy forests that had not been allowed to burn according to natural cycles and had become overgrown and weak.

Between 2007 and 2016, the average number of new acres containing pine mortality was a whopping 380,000 per year. Any resident or visitor familiar with the stands of lodgepole pines in places like Summit County and Rocky Mountain National Park still can see vast vistas of red trees, realizing that a “red tree is a dead tree.”

The beetle wave may have abated, but it has left behind a massive tinderbox. Fires this past summer prove just how vulnerable the region has become.

Great efforts have been made to clear dead pines from under power lines, around mountain homes and whole communities, as the dead trees represent a severe fire hazard. The fires that have broken out near the towns of Breckenridge, Silverthorne and Dillon in the last six years serve as examples of what an overabundance of dead wood in our forests can fuel, given a lightning strike or a camper’s errand campfire. Even the spark from stray bullet or firecracker can set off a forest fire that can consume huge numbers of acres. 

The notion of employing numbers of men and women to better care for our forest lands, building huge fire breaks and instituting other conservation measures could save the nation billions in natural resources and enable it to improve air and water quality, as well as curb gasses that add to our climate problems.

The participants, tested and vetted before being selected for the programs, might work part of the day and learn part of the day. During the learning segment of the day, they would become students, exposed to basic reading and math skills. This program possibly could entail even college-level courses and might save a generation from the poverty of poor educations and instill a work ethic nurtured by programs far safer and much different than military service.

America has taken on challenges far greater than this, but it would entail having leadership from the forestry service, the secretaries of the interior and agriculture, university agriculture teams, and the private sector all working in concert. This could involve camps throughout the Southwest and West and Northwest. 

The idea would be to start small with clearly defined, achievable goals on the ground, and testable educational goals for the classroom material. As successes materialize and as lessons are digested and applied, the programs could be expanded. 

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The bottom line would be saving not only vast acreage of woodland, but also a generation of youth, young adults and even veterans who lack the proper education and skills to succeed. 

The proposal, if deemed feasible under programs apart from or even folded into President Biden’s “Build-Back-Better” and similar funding sources, might entail the formulation of a task force — but with a time limit! — to put together trial programs. 

As a nation, we are not only capable of reviving the concept of CCC camps, we are obligated to do so, in an attempt to save lives as well as to better manage our forest lands. In doing this, given the impacts of forest fires on climate change and vice-versa, we also are attempting to save ourselves.


Rabbi Joel R. Schwartzman lives in Dillon.


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