Colorado state senator rants against federal “absentee landowner”

Some people assume the federal government can do nothing right and use that as an excuse to create fear and rationalize their views. Concerning the national parks and national forests in his state that are owned by the citizens of the United States, a state senator in Colorado, Steve King, has said “absentee landowners” are managing the federal lands.

Senator King and others who may know little or nothing about wildland fire behavior see trees affected by insects (see the tag “beetles”) and assume the forest is now subject to unprecedented explosive forest fires. There is not complete agreement on this, but at least two recent studies have concluded that beetle killed trees do not substantially increase the risk of active crown fire, at least in lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) and spruce (Picea engelmannii)-fir (Abies spp.). We said the same thing as early as three years ago. Our view is that the resistance to control of a forest fire would increase somewhat one to four years after a beetle outbreak, during the red needle stage, and then would decrease since the crown fire potential would dramatically decline.

Senator King’s opinion about absentee landowners is over the top, but he uses that argument to justify his state’s acquisition of an air tanker and helicopter fleet to better attack wildfires in Colorado. While his goal may be laudable, his tactics are not. And keep in mind, aircraft do not put out fires. Under ideal weather, fuel, and topography conditions, they can slow down a fire providing firefighters on the ground an opportunity to suppress it. If those conditions do not exist, such as during strong winds, aircraft are virtually useless as a fire suppression tool.

Below is an excerpt from an article written by the senator, and following that, a portion of a newspaper’s editorial in response.

…Absentee owners are allowing brush and beetle-kill trees to collect to the point of criminal negligence, putting all property owners at risk of being victims of a catastrophic wildfire.

The absentee owner here is the federal government: 36.6 percent of Colorado land is under the control and “ownership” of the federal government. A very high percentage of dead federal beetle-kill trees that have blown down now are surrounding Colorado’s precious life sustaining water sheds.

If any other Colorado land owner allowed their property to de-evolve to the state of federal lands in the WUI and around our water sheds, the state of Colorado would declare the land blighted and exercise eminent domain to take that land under state control. We are in a critical race against time to remediate the land before it is too late for our water, air and land to be saved from the specter of a catastrophic wildfire…

Grand Junction’s Daily Sentinel responded to Senator King’s remarks. Below is an excerpt:

…State Sen. Steve King’s latest offering – “Don’t count on federal landowners to aid in fighting wildfires in Colorado” – epitomizes the incoherence of Republicans’ pandering policy prescriptions.

The federal government manages 23 millions acres of wilderness, National Forest, and BLM lands in Colorado – where fires are often naturally occurring regenerative events.

Coloradans have chosen to build homes adjacent to those lands – ignoring the inherent risks of doing so, which are apparently increasing as a result of global climate change.

King conveniently places the onus of fire suppression responsibility on the public side of the “wildland-urban interface”—rather than on “urbanites”—and falsely insinuates that the federal government is “absent” when wildfires originate on federally-managed lands.

Moreover, King curiously does not advocate a commensurate exercise of “eminent domain” against absentee private landowners who neglect their property, counties that refuse to enact sensible zoning ordinances, and/or individuals who fail to demonstrate “personal responsibility” by acquiring adequate and actuarially-priced fire insurance.

Instead, King calls on Colorado’s “government” to insure those “free riders” by imposing increased tax burdens on more prudent citizens who opt not to assume the risk of closely locating near the viewsheds afforded by Colorado’s scenic landscapes, while begging the question of how many firefighting aircraft are needed and who would pay for them…

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

10 thoughts on “Colorado state senator rants against federal “absentee landowner””

  1. It’s been my experience in Utah that when legislators complain about the feds not managing the land right, whatever smokescreen they throw up, the underlying reason is a few ranchers and loggers who want to extract private profit from public lands currently off limits.

  2. I don’t see an issue with private business extracting profit from fed lands. Many things happen when profit is made….they are taxed on what they make, they employ people, they spend the money they make (often locally) and the forest becomes healthier.

    1. Not when unregulated use occurs. Logan canyon was denuded all the way to the ridge tops back in 1900 when sheep and cattle grazing were a public right. Mendon was routinely flooded every year after the same grazing was allowed on the Wellsvilles. People forget the rape and run tactics that the USFS put a stop to after the national forests came into being. Yes, there are ranchers and loggers who are good land stewards. But there are enough greedy people out there that we need the restraint offered by federal land managers to keep our public resources available to all the public. Including people who just want to picnic there and leave something of beauty for future generations. Sorry for the non-fire rant.

  3. Bill’s on the mark. Senator King has been the lead on trying to get Colorado an air tanker fleet and he uses every chance he gets to push the program. The fact that no new state legislation was proposed to enhance Colorado’s fire suppression capability this year may have “spun him up” a bit. So maybe the Senator can throw rocks at the feds, but we are our own worst problem in Colorado. The state has done nothing to improve our chances to avoid another disastrous fire season in Colorado.

  4. After a few days in southern California, I’m in the Vegas area for a bit. The recent fire in the Mt. Charleston area seems to have inspired zero move towards responsible regulatory policies or voluntary responsible homeowner behavior in the vicinity of the fire. The contrast with SoCal is pretty stark — and because of the dead-end road and the terrain and fuel that is still there, Mt. Charleston is a possible site for an outlier fire event in the future. Colorado so far seems more like NV than CA, though the state government does seem aware of the issue and want to move towards a better footing. At some point, if homeowners choose to simply look to get bailed out from elsewhere for failing to take reasonable precautions against fires that are inevitable, the message to them needs to be that they need to bail themselves out.

    An air tanker fleet for CO is a preposterous, if well-intended, idea. Defensible space will save lives and dollars, an air tanker fleet will cost lots of money and breed a false sense of comfort. And therefore cost lives in the long term.

  5. SR,

    Mitigation is probably the long term answer here in Colorado. However, nearly 70% of the forested land in Colorado belongs to federal agencies and a proportionate number of our wild fires start on federal lands. State run mitigation programs, even if mandatory, cannot address a problem on federal lands. Fires tend to ignore political boundaries so ignoring federal fires isn’t an answer either. While we wait for mitigation to catch up with the problem, what is to be done in the interim? To keep a fire from getting big, prompt adequate initial attack seems to be the only remaining option.

    The job of initial attack and suppression in Colorado is the responsibility of individual fire protection district fire departments manned mainly by volunteer firefighters. No fire protection district is funded to the extent that it can afford more than basic firefighting equipment. There is limited federal support for initial attack depending on the location and availability of prepositioned assets. There is almost no state support for initial attack. All the “heavy help” arrives at least a day late when it comes to fire suppression.

    The state of Colorado has abdicated any responsibility for providing initial attack support to the 63 counties in the state. Most of the counties have passed the buck for initial attack to the local fire protection districts. So if the remaining option in Colorado is to “beef up” initial attack to reduce the number of big escaped fires, or ignore them, what would you recommend? Do nothing to improve initial attack capability [the present state choice] or start providing some initial attack support for the districts.

    If your choice is to provide initial attack support and try to keep small fires small, what assets can get there in 30 minutes independent of terrain and access considerations and provide support over a larger area? State hand crews? State engines? Or State aircraft?

    Yes, air support costs a lot of money but look where firefighting on the cheap in Colorado has gotten us over the last few years.

  6. Bean,

    All very good points. At the end of the day, my view is that the money for air support would be better-spent enforcing more-rational defensible space requirements. Homes on the beach need to be storm-worthy, and those in CO, UT and NV among other places should be as firewise as those in the more heavily regulated areas of SoCal. I do acknowledge that this view is still not a majority one. Increasing resources available to try to keep small fires small certainly is another viable approach. My belief is that the keep them small approach ultimately will lead to more-destructive fires, though, as without a move to more-responsible construction and related behavior such as landscaping, when a fire does escape and become big (which is inevitable) an increasingly large number of structures will be at risk.

  7. The senator may be right in a couple of aspects. Initial attack in Colorado is laughable. It lacks a Region wide strategy and has failed to evolve as the fuel conditions, long term weather shift, and fire behavior have changed dramatically. The Feds should be leading the way in R2, but it is just not the case. R2 is stuck in the stone age when it comes to IA. Region 8 and 9 are progressing at a faster and wiser rate than R2. It’s a shame since there are good people and good crews, but lowsy Regional leadership when it comes to vision and execution.

  8. I had someone tell me once that a fire supervisor should work very hard to never be surprised. The intent was to make a person or a group more proactive rather than reactive. It seems to me that if an area or group of people are not up to the task of reacting quickly to a fire, more emphasis should be placed on becoming proactive. Mitigation and defensible space should take priority. If a fire gets out of control in my piece of heaven, I will be ready with fire breaks and other defensible space measures. I have not got the money to have a SEAT sitting ready in the back yard.
    It seems that the reality is that there are very few areas where we can just let ‘er burn without threatening a community somewhere unless some pretty good defensible space and other mitigation measures have been taken first.
    I watched a video once if a fire behavior class of a fire in a state park( I believe in Colorado) that burnt up to the main buildings. The park crews thinned the trees around the buildings and the crown fire dropped and went around. Pretty impressive. ( Has anyone seen this viedo, I cant remember the name and would love to watch it again. Thanks)

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