By SEAN ELLIS
BOISE -- Representatives of Idaho's forest industry reacted positively to U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell's announcement that timber harvest on federal land would increase by 20 percent over the next couple of years.
Tidwell told members of Boise's City Club Nov. 30 that this year's severe wildfire season is an example of why it's critical to restore forest health by clearing out some of the fuel that is leading to much bigger wildfires.
Close to 9 million acres burned across the nation this year, much more than normal, Tidwell said, but federal scientists predict that fire seasons of 12-15 million acres will be the norm in the future.
"We have to find ways ... to reduce the level of severity of these fires," he said.
Tidwell said about 80 million of the agency's 193 million acres need to be restored and that thinning is one of the main tools to accomplish that.
His announcement came as welcome news to members of Idaho's forest industry.
"That's great news," said Bill Higgins, resource manager for Idaho Forest Group. "Federal lands are in need of management and this year's fire season is an example of that. Our forests are over-grown with fuel. It's work that needs to be done."
Tidwell said that goal can best be accomplished by increasing collaborative efforts between major stakeholders that have already allowed for more timber harvest without litigation in many cases. There are 23 of these collaborative efforts around the country and Tidwell hopes to increase that number dramatically.
The collaborations can "eliminate a lot of the conflict surrounding these lands," he said. "The number of lawsuits the last couple of years has gone down and the work we've been able to do has gone up."
The collaborative efforts receive funding under the agency's Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program and Tidwell said he will keep pushing them until they are a common practice across the country.
He singled out the success of Idaho's Clearwater Basin Collaborative, which has brought together a diverse group of timber industry representatives, conservation interests, county commissioners and people interested in rural economic development.
The group, which was convened in 2008 by Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, has developed a 10-year plan that is expected to lead to additional timber harvest and provide more than 300 jobs.
"Collaboration is not easy; it's really hard work," said Higgins, who represents IFG on the Clearwater project and is in Washington, D.C., speaking with government officials about it. "But we've had some successes in meeting the needs of industry and people that want to see an increase in forest management."
Crapo said he will continue to advocate for further use of the collaborative model.
"When all sides agree to leave lawsuits behind, we can truly find solutions that are better for the environment and better for the economy," he said.