As the California wildfires reach containment, we must focus on the devastation of so much property and the tragic loss of so many lives. My prayers go out to those victims and their families, now irrevocably changed. Brave men and women serving as first responders, including fire crews from the Treasure Valley and Madison County, risked their lives to fight these catastrophic fires.
During my tenure, wildfires have been voracious, consuming millions of acres across the West. Perhaps the most alarming, the 2007 Murphy Complex Fire ravaged 650,000 acres in Idaho and Nevada alone. These large-scale fires have become routine and that should be unacceptable to all of us.
Most of us know wildfire is a natural part of the landscape. Lightning strikes and other acts of nature cannot be prevented and instead can improve the health of the ecosystem. However, large, catastrophic fires, like the ones we are experiencing, are not normal.
Through passive management, and active acts of obstruction, we have allowed our landscape to become a tinderbox. Our rangelands are overgrown with fine fuels, including large swaths of nonnative grasses. Our forests are plagued by insects, disease and overcrowding. There is plenty of blame to pass around, including unnecessary regulation and overzealous litigation.
Early in my administration, I decided to focus less on pointing fingers and more on how to tackle the problem. That required collaborative approaches, essential in a state where 60 percent of the land is federally owned.
That’s why I worked with the Legislature to provide seed money for Idaho’s first-ever Rangeland Fire Protection Associations. Through a cooperative agreement between the state and BLM, ranchers are professionally trained to provide swift, initial attack on BLM-managed ground. Today, the RFPAs protect 9.7 million acres of rangeland, including high-value sage grouse habitat. As a result, landscapes remain intact, benefiting the ranchers, public land users, and Idaho’s abundant wildlife.
Early in 2014, I identified 1.8 million acres of national forest lands suitable for treatment due to insect infestations and disease. Using a self-funded program known as the Good Neighbor Authority, the Idaho Department of Lands assumes the lead role on treatment projects within high-risk areas. This increases the pace and scale of timber harvest but also vastly improves forest health and diminishes the risk of fire while providing an economic boost to our rural communities. By 2021, we expect to treat nearly 11,000 acres of Forest Service land, which will produce 70 million board feet of timber and bring in approximately $16.4 million in gross revenue.
These are just two examples of how Idahoans are working together with the federal government to develop home-grown approaches addressing this national problem. But we all must redouble our efforts to find more solutions. I’m encouraged by President Trump and Secretary Zinke’s approach and collaboration. Hopefully, this effort will help reduce catastrophic fires in the future and protect the people who live here and love the land.
Butch Otter, a Republican, is the governor of Idaho.