In 2002, one of the largest forest fires in Colorado history ripped across our state, and it was all within eyesight of the Denver Metro Area. My first year in the Colorado legislature was 2003, and I’ll never forget the Colorado State Forest Service’s presentation to state leaders showing how the Hayman Fire affected state versus federal lands. In areas managed by the state, where trees were thinned, the land was already starting to recover. In the national forests, the overgrown timber caused the fires to burn so intensely that it left the land scorched and resembling a sterile moonscape that might never regain its former majestic state.
Fast forward 20 years and the problem has grown worse. Over the past month Colorado has been experiencing dangerous air quality levels caused by forest fires burning across the west. When driving from Wray into Denver I can typically see the mountains as soon as I pass Akron. Earlier this week, I could not see the mountains at all, not even from Denver.
We need to call a spade a spade on this problem. If you trust science and data, it will lead you to one conclusion: the size of forest fires, their growing devastation, and the secondary impacts to our air and water are primarily a result of over a century of federal forest mismanagement.
This is not a new issue or phenomenon. In 1910, a massive 3-million-acre fire burned across three states and the U.S. Forest Service implemented a new policy to extinguish every fire as quickly as possible, by 10 A.M. if possible. This was a critical historical pivot — enacting an overly broad measure that essentially disrupted the natural and necessary process of wildfires.
This shortsighted policy change was made exponentially more dangerous when extreme environmental groups went to war with the logging industry. Environmentalists won this fight too, enacting complete logging bans rather than managed logging activities. In the early 20th century, there was an average of 19 trees per acre in the Stanislaus National Forest in Northern California; today there are 260 trees per acre in the same forest. Colorado forests grow an estimated 1.5 billion board feet per year, but we allow less than 5% of that growth to be harvested.
Give credit where it is due — extreme environmental groups have been extraordinarily successful in implementing their preferred forest “plan.” In 2021, the trophies for their success can be viewed across the western United States: thousands of acres of forest lands that are a tinder box of dead, overgrown flammable material awaiting ignition.
This was a natural and inevitable result of federal forest policies crafted by extreme environmental groups: compounding buildup of combustible material that makes wildfires fires hotter, more dangerous, and more devastating. It leads to massive wildfires, severe air quality problems, and growing water quality problems as watersheds are increasingly polluted by the burns.
For the majority of citizens willing to act on data rather innuendo here is an inescapable fact: Properly managed forests will burn with reduced devastation and recover more quickly than the out-of-control, overgrown messes we have today.
The extreme air quality experienced along Colorado’s front range this past month is the latest result of extreme mismanagement of federal forests. The health and economic devastation caused by this mismanagement disproportionately affects western states. It is time that extreme special interest groups spread along the eastern seaboard be placed in timeout and empower proven forest management experts from western states to lead federal forest management back to a commonsense solution that protects our health, environment, and economies.
Greg Brophy is a former state legislator from the Eastern Plains and the Colorado director of The Western Way (www.thewesternway.org), a conservative nonprofit that seeks pro-market solutions to environmental challenges.