June 15, 2012--U.S. wildfires fuel urgency for forest restoration (Aspen Times)

As firefighters battle blazes in New Mexico and Colorado that have forced evacuations and destroyed hundreds of structures, the U.S. Forest Service chief is renewing his call to restore forests to a more natural state, where fire was a part of the landscape. Experts say a combination of decades of vigorous fire suppression and the waning of the timber industry over environmental concerns has left many forests a tangled, overgrown mess, subject to the kind of super-fires that are now regularly consuming hundreds of homes and millions of acres. The Forest Service is on a mission to set the clock back to zero and the urgency couldn't be greater, Tom Tidwell said. The plan calls for accelerating restoration programs — everything from prescribed fire and mechanical thinning — by 20 percent each year in key areas that are facing the greatest danger of a catastrophic fire. The directive doesn't stop at the landscape level, however. Each forest in the Southwest is part of a pilot project that pools regular watershed and wildlife program funds for restoration. Regional forester Corbin Newman said that amounts to millions of dollars. In an era of tight budgets and taxed resources, forest officials acknowledged that restoration will be a challenge. They said part of the solution is setting priorities and forming more partnerships with states, municipalities and even water utilities given the impacts catastrophic fires can have on watersheds. Some 66 million Americans rely on drinking water that flows from the nation's forests.

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