New state-federal effort, endorsed by Murkowski, is aimed at curbing destructive wildfires

WASHINGTON — Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski joined Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Thursday to announce a plan for collaboration between states and the U.S. Forest Service that they hope will help prevent devastating wildfires across the West.

Alaska has not had a particularly notable year for fires, but massive fires continue to rage across the western United States.

"I flew through Seattle yesterday. … You could taste the smoke in the air and you could see it all throughout not only in Seattle, but it was all the way up into Canadian and Alaska air as well," Murkowski said from the podium at a Washington event.

The new Forest Service plan focuses on forming localized strategies to prevent wildfires from spreading through preventive measures meant to lessen the fuel for fires. The plan would use planned burns to keep dry and damaged timber from acting as kindling.

The latest 2018 federal spending bill allowed new land treatments and road maintenance to improve forest conditions, and longer-term contracts in certain areas, according to the Forest Service. The agency also hopes to "make environmental analysis more efficient and timber sale contracts more flexible," according an agency statement.

"This year Congress has given us new opportunities to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with state leaders to identify land-management priorities that include mitigating wildfire risks," said Interim Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen.

She noted that the Forest Service is already working with Alaska on a new "roadless rule," which Murkowski and others hope will allow more logging in Tongass National Forest.


And Murkowski noted this year's return of the spruce bark beetle in Southcentral Alaska is "bringing even greater threat to wildfire." The beetles can kill off trees, boosting fire danger.

Perdue said Thursday that he had just returned from California, where ongoing fires are "stark reminders of the immense forest fire health crisis in this country, and the urgent need to dramatically increase our preventative forest treatment."

Perdue denied that recent wildfires and their intensity are the result of human-caused climate change. And he argued that it doesn't matter much, because it wouldn't change how the Forest Service must approach the problem.

Scientists have found that climate change has increased the area affected by forest fires, making timber drier and more likely to burn. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2016 found "that human-caused climate change … doubled the cumulative forest fire area since 1984."

The plan comes as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has repeatedly argued that quicker timber harvest would help prevent the spread of fires. He blames environmental groups for slowing the pace of forest management. "We have been held hostage by these environmental terrorist groups that have not allowed public access — that have refused to allow (the) harvest of timber," Zinke reportedly told Breitbart News on a radio show Saturday.

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Washington, D.C.