U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce of New Mexico, Wyoming Rep. Cynthia Lummis, and Reps. Mike Coffman, Cory Gardner, Doug Lamborn and Scott Tipton of Colorado convened Thursday at the Capitol in Denver to hear testimony from local experts and county commissioners about how to better protect national forests.
The hearing was purely informational, as lawmakers consider what legislative steps might help mitigate wildfire danger.
"It has become beyond clear that we need a change in the way that we manage our national forest," Coffman said.
Lawmakers talked of a need for federal action, and most witnesses said federal laws created barriers to local wildfire prevention efforts—though they also acknowledged a need for funding from Washington, D.C.
The thrust of the Republicans lawmakers' statements was that fires on lands owned by the Department of the Interior or other federal divisions can easily spread to private lands and neighborhoods, but the federal government isn't doing enough to protect against forest fires.
Former Interior Secretary Gail Norton, who served from 2001 to 2006, said that the Obama administration seems to be more involved in forest management policies than the Bush administration. She said, however, the additional involvement hasn't necessarily helped to protect potential burn areas.
"In order for us to move ahead, we need to have the self-sustaining ability to thin our forests," Norton said.
She discussed the need for a larger market for forested products, noting that she was pleased to see a bin a local grocery store made from beetle-kill lumber.
Mike King, executive director of Colorado's Department of Natural Resources, echoed this, adding that the federal government needs to make it easier for the private sector to step in.
"We as a state, and the federal government as well, do not have the resources to address this problem and, let's be honest, we probably never will," King said. "Until and unless there's a private sector solution ... we will never get our arms around the magnitude of the problem that is facing forest health and the Western United States."
In particular, King and others see an opening for private sector involvement in forest management—removing trees that have been damaged by pine beetles or that simply have died.
A spokeswoman from the Interior Department said the department has an active fuels management program and treats thousands of acres every year to minimize fire danger.
But Colorado, King said, still has plenty of timber that can be removed from forests.
The two main methods for removing dead trees are controlled burns and mechanical removal. Witnesses testified about the efficacy of each method, noting that controlled burns are cheaper, but logging is easier to control.
Colorado representatives and El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark talked especially of last year's Waldo Canyon Fire, the most destructive in state history. Lamborn said better clearing of forests could have helped prevent the fire, or at least minimize the effects. The Waldo Canyon fire destroyed more than 300 homes and killed two people.
"Dead and diseased trees turn the mountains into a tinder box," Clark said.
Clark and commissioners from Summit and Larimer counties said they are working on local plans to recover from last year's fires and to prepare for the future, but they said more funding is needed for adequate protective measures and training.