Colorado’s future is burning as we fiddle

Legislative session 2014 is less than two weeks away and it’ll be an interesting time in the Colorado Senate. The recall and resignation of three Democratic senators since we adjourned in May means a nearly 10 percent turnover in a non-election year. Election season 2014 looms on the horizon, too, so we’ll have quite the mix of personalities, issues and politics this session.

Yet, no matter the upheavals and distractions, we must focus on the threat, no, make that the promise, of continued catastrophic wildfires and the concentrated effort needed to improve forest health statewide. This may be assisted partly by legislation, but much more needs to be done outside that avenue.

What I know I won’t be supporting is the governor’s recent suggestion, as reported in the Durango Herald, that we rely on farmers and ranchers as our first line of defense in fighting wildfires. This may have been an off-the-cuff idea expressed by the governor, but, when I read it, I wondered whether to laugh or cry.

Fighting catastrophic wildfires is not like extinguishing a ringed campfire. We need professional wildfire fighters, assisted by local structure firefighters, law enforcement and other first responders. Facing a wildfire bearing down on them, farmers and ranchers are rightly preoccupied with moving livestock and protecting family and other precious assets. The suggestion that relying on the country cousins to save burning metropolitan suburbs, like Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, should also be distressing to residents of the Front Range.

We may not be able to fund a state-owned air fleet right away, but we must have a reliable emergency radio communications system and a steady, reliable supply of single-engine air tankers, larger capacity planes and nimble, speedy helicopter operations. We can at least forcefully advance a western states’ regional air fleet that moves with the shifting fire dangers, hitting states at different times of the fire season. We need to see that local, state and federal firefighters have ample ground resources, too.

We can expand and help fund education on home mitigation efforts and the need to do prescribed burns, not dictated by air regulations to occur only in windy times to disperse the smoke, but when they can be completed safely. We must do a better job of protecting our state’s watersheds and soils from the devastation caused by wildfires and this will require getting into our forests to responsibly thin out the gnarled and diseased trees. There’s no better exhibit of the terrible condition of Colorado’s forests than driving over Wolf Creek Pass, immediately east of my district.

Catastrophic wildfires destroy more than homes, possessions and happy memories. Colorado has lost lives in these fires each year recently, and neighboring Arizona suffered the immeasurable loss of 19 wildfire fighters last summer.

The federal government owns 68 percent of Colorado’s forests. The local federal foresters aren’t to blame for out-of-touch Washington, D.C. policies that have led to the forest devastation and the loss of the timber industry previously here. Yet, it’s impossible to address Colorado’s problems without demanding better stewardship from the federal landowner. This is where the governor should seek responsible, meaningful assistance, and I’ll be right there to help him.

It is infuriating and ironic that the U.S. Forest Service is considering closing public restrooms, that is, pit toilets, along the highways of Southwestern Colorado as the agency, “no longer has the resources to properly maintain” the toilets. If the agency can’t pay for maintaining a few pit toilets, can we really expect them to do better with maintaining our forests? The cost of fighting fires has decimated the most basic budget items, and, yet, the federal government appears content to repeat the same insanity of reacting to catastrophe instead of getting ahead of it with restorative forest health practices.

There is a better way, but, apparently, the state of Colorado, and its governor, must lead the way as the feds cannot, or will not. If what Governor Hickenlooper wants to focus on this legislative session is jobs for our state, trust me, job opportunities abound and public safety will improve, if we take this challenge seriously and with dedicated focus.

Colorado’s present, and future, demands it from us.