WASHINGTON — Idaho is at big risk for a catastrophic wildfire because of the lack of logging, Gov. Butch Otter told members of Congress on Tuesday.
Otter said a disaster along the lines of the devastating 1910 wildfires could be coming, as the trees that came in after thsoe fires are reaching the end of their natural life. That leaves plenty of decaying material on federal lands to burn.
"We've got a devastating fire coming at us ... because of natural death of that forest and its coming at us," Otter told a group of sympathetic Republican lawmakers from the West who are members of the Congressional Western Caucus on Capitol Hill.
Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador, a member of the caucus, agreed with Otter. "Eventually it's going to catch fire and it's going to be devastating to Idaho and to the American economy," Labrador said.
The 1910 fires, also known as the Big Burn, scorched about three million acres in Idaho, Montana and Washington.
Labrador and Otter want the state to take over management of federal timberlands. But both Idaho environmentalists and the timber industry say the federal government is working with them in collaborative efforts to manage Idaho's forests and reduce the fire risk.
The Forest Service has recognized that targeted logging near developed areas is helpful, said Bill Higgins, the resource manager of the Idaho Forest Group in Grangeville, one of the larger timber companies in the state.
"We are behind but we are starting to see a change in course to more active forest management," Higgins said in a Tuesday interview.
Higgins said fire suppression efforts for the past 50 years, as well as lack of thinning from timber harvest, does increase the risk of a big uncontrolled fire.
Idaho Conservation League Executive Director Rick Johnson agreed there is a fire risk but said it's a huge oversimplification to suggest logging will fix that. The Wilderness Society responded to the fed bashing at Tuesday's Western Caucus hearing by noting the Forest Service last month announced Idaho would receive $5.7 million for three efforts to improve the health of national forests.
That includes $3 million for the Clearwater Basin Collaborative, $2.4 million for projects on Payette National Forest, and $324,000 of the Kootenai Valley.
Johnson criticized Tuesday's event and said such cooperative efforts involving the federal government, the timber industry, environmentalists, local officials and others are better than what he called anti-federal "theater" and the state trying to manage federal lands.
"The state has different goals, whether it is cutting more trees or providing more jobs or what have you. It's different than the longer term, bigger, higher-profile goals of the federal government — protecting watersheds, long-term recreation opportunities, wildlife habitat," Johnson said.
Otter told the Congressional Western Caucus on Tuesday that Idaho is unfairly treated among states because the federal government owns 63 percent of all lands in Idaho and manages nearly three-quarters of the forests.
"I'd hope there would be some discussion of letting the states be the stewards and reap benefits for local schools and communities off those forests," Otter said.
It's become an issue in the presidential campaign. Republican candidates Rick Santorum and Ron Paul proposed selling or transferring federal lands such as national forests to private interests or to the state. Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney proposed transferring management of national forests to states to increase the revenues they generate.
Idaho Rep. Labrador said Tuesday that he's pushing a measure aimed at trying to allow Idaho to take over management of federal timberlands.
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