Steamboat Springs Colorado's lawmakers don't want a repeat of the 2002 fire season. At the state and national levels, they are seeking ways to reform the way forests are managed.
Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., hopes to avoid another summer of rampant wildland fires by speeding up the decision-making process for timber removal.
"Looking backward, this wildfire crisis is unprecedented in the last several decades," he said. "Looking forward, this fiery carnage is going to continue for decades unless we take bold and decisive steps."
Citizens and interest groups should have the right to appeal thinning projects, he said, but the current Forest Service appeals process does not move quickly enough and encourages conflict rather than meaningful public input.
McInnis, chairman of the House Resources subcommittee on forests and forest health, recently introduced legislation that would remove some hurdles to thinning unhealthy forests.
He testified in a House Resources Committee last Friday to discuss his proposal that strongly resembles President Bush's Healthy Forest Initiative.
His legislation calls for thinning projects on more than 40 million acres that border communities, watersheds and other high-value areas.
McInnis wants to trim the appeals process from a few years to a few months while still giving parties the chance to challenge thinning projects.
"There will be no more stalling," he said. "Thinning projects will no longer be subject to death by unending delay."
Forest Service officials who oversee the Routt National Forest agree the appeals process consumes time and resources.
But it's a necessary evil, Forest Service district ranger Kim Vogel said.
Measures were put in place to prevent abuse, she said. A lengthy appeals process ensures that everyone is heard and the forest is not irrevocably harmed by excessive thinning practices.
Vogel said forest health suffers locally not so much from delayed thinning projects but from a lack of funding to implement those projects.
Congress approved a $1.8 billion National Fire Plan in 2000 to address the dangerous accumulation of trees and brush on public lands.
The Medicine Bow/Routt National Forest received $400,000 to devise a plan that would safely reduce the threat of severe wildfires around Steamboat Springs.
The Dry Lake Fuel Reduction Project evolved from a lengthy environmental assessment of fire-prone areas and public input. The plan encompasses land on the north side of the Steamboat Ski Area, down to Buffalo Pass and westward to Elk River Road all the way to Copper Ridge, as well as Morrison Creek near Stagecoach.
Forest Service officials are eager to begin implementing the project but lack the financial wherewithal.
"We're ready to move forward if we get the money," Vogel said.
If and when the money becomes available, the project will only make a small dent in the overall health of the Routt National Forest.
The Forest Service has neither the manpower nor the funds to undertake forest-wide fuel reduction on 1.2 million acres of forest, supervisory forester Andy Cadenhead said.
"We can't do it on that large of a scale," he said, even though thinned-out tree stands would have helped firefighters suppress fires in the Mount Zirkel and Sarvis Creek Wilderness areas.
Overall forest health is important, but the protection of communities from fires should top the Forest Service's list of priorities, said Jane Toothaker, chairman of the Trappers Lake Group of the Sierra Club.
"The ultimate goal is to help protect homeowners protect their homes," she said. Rehabilitative projects, such as thinning and controlled burning, must occur where people live and the potential for devastating forest fires exist, she added.
The Trappers Lake Group, which draws its membership from Northwest Colorado, recognizes the ecological benefits of wildland fire.
It questions the benefits of logging backcountry areas to minimize fire potential.
"We would like to be careful that we don't log our ancient and wild forest," Toothaker said.
Logging would necessitate logging roads in roadless wilderness areas, and the Sierra Club cannot support that, she said.
The Forest Service, the public and special-interest groups must collectively determine what areas of national forest demand human intervention and what areas are best left alone, she said.
"It is their (the public's) national forest, so there needs to be a balance," Toothaker said.
"Fire has a role in managing the forest. Unfortunately, we've had a lot more than our share."
Rep. Al White, R-Winter Park, expects state lawmakers will introduce a resolution urging congressional delegates to endorse legislation, such as McInnis', that calls for healthier national forests.
Evidence shows managed forests don't burn to the degree unmanaged forests do, he said.
"Managed forests make sense from a fire-prevention standpoint," White said.
And rehabilitative efforts would ensure more moisture reaches Colorado's watersheds, he said.
Dense pockets of trees create a natural awning that blocks rain and snow from reaching sections of forest floor. That means the tinder-dry fuel on the ground never benefits from the moisture above and nearby rivers, streams and lakes do not receive as much inflow.
"There would be more water yield if the forests were managed differently than they are today," said Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs.
He stressed that proposals to more efficiently manage national forests do not imply bringing in logging companies to completely remove large sections of old-growth timber.
"That is not clear cut," he said.
Fire's devastating blow to Colorado's national forests begs for change in how the Forest Service manages its forests, Taylor said.
"It makes a lot more sense to thin and reduce the number of trees so we don't have to spend the money on fires," he said.
Taylor challenged the Forest Service to take a second look at where its money is going and prioritize funds for more management practices.
Forest Service officials hope this summer's fire season prompts more elected officials to evaluate the poor condition of national forests and consider what can be done to improve them.
Routt County was fortunate that most of its fires stayed within the confines of the wilderness, Cadenhead said. But with the 2003 fire forecast looking as bleak as 2002, homeowners can't rest on this summer's good fortune.
Everyone shares the responsibility to protect at-risk communities from wildland fires, because society made a conscious decision to suppress wildland fires, Vogel said.
"It's not just the Forest Service," Vogel said. "Everyone is responsible for the situation that we are in."