As the 2012 wildfire season smolders around us, here are some scary numbers.
In Idaho, 20.4 million acres fall under the umbrella of the U.S. Forest Service.
Of that figure, 15 million acres are overgrown, susceptible to wildfire and in need of what the Forest Service calls restoration. In other words, these dense forests need to be thinned, either through logging or prescribed burns, to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire.
Idaho is in the midst of a national effort to speed up forest restoration a campaign that could reshape our forests, and the Forest Services management of them. Nationally, the numbers are daunting as well: The Forest Service manages 193 million acres nationwide and says 65 million to 82 million acres need restoration.
So Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell wants his local and regional foresters to step up the pace. The agency has been treating some 3.5 million acres a year; Tidwell would like to get that figure up to 4 million acres within the current budget.
As Tidwell walked through the issue with the Statesman editorial board recently, I was struck by the transformative element of this effort. Forest restoration requires a lot of work on the ground, obviously, but a new approach to the administrative work.
Tidwell, a Boise native, is candid about the agencys institutional strengths and weaknesses. He touts the agencys expertise in the natural sciences and I think that grounding will be crucial as the Forest Service tries to restore the health of its public lands.
But he also says the Forest Service has struggled with the social sciences, working on the front end with those most affected by its decisions.
The agency is working harder at collaboration seeking consensus with local elected officials, environmentalists and a forest products industry that he considers essential to the restoration effort. Collaboration is the right approach, but the clock is running. Collaboration takes time, Tidwell said. Its not a shortcut.
The other institutional challenge is ramping up restoration efforts while juggling the Forest Services time-honored multiple-use mission. Tidwell says hed never ask his employees to do more with less but he is asking them to do more with the same resources. Restoration work has to compete with requests for everything from mining permits to recreation projects to power transmission lines.
Little surprise, then, that Tidwell says that the reaction within the agency has been somewhat mixed. Hes pushing for change in a turbulent time, a tough sell in any institution. As Tidwell talked about his agencys challenges, I couldnt help think about my own industry, as traditional newspapers look to remake themselves in a digital age. The parallels are apparent.
For the Forest Service, the need to change quickly is also readily apparent. Fire seasons like this one, marked by the deadly and devastating fires in Colorado, should provide ample impetus.
CYCLING LAWS: ANOTHER LAP
Heres something you dont see often: a New York Times columnist praising Idaho.
When Randy Cohen wrote on Aug. 4 about the need for reasonable, common-sense cycling laws, he used Idaho as an example of best practices. Cohen cited an often misunderstood law that allows cyclists to roll through a stop sign after slowing down and yielding the right of way. Idaho cyclists can also proceed through a red light after stopping to yield the right of way something Cohen says he does, even though its against New York traffic laws.
Laws work best when they are voluntarily heeded by people who regard them as reasonable, he said. If cycling laws were a wise response to actual cycling rather than a clumsy misapplication of motor vehicle laws, I suspect that compliance, even by me, would rise.
After writing about Idahos cycling laws in a column last week, I received an interesting couple of emails.
One reader argued for consistent, easy-to-understand traffic laws pointing out, with some reluctance, that this is the way they do it in California. In California a bicycle is a vehicle and must follow the same rules as all other vehicles.
Another reader made the case for the rules, since it is safer for cyclists to limit stops and starts. Starting from a dead stop on a bicycle often causes cyclists to weave a bit until they get going or into their clips.
A good point, and Id add another. A cyclist stopped at a red light is a cyclist standing at an intersection or in a turn lane, exposed and in close proximity to cars and trucks. Thats a vulnerable situation; if a cyclist can get out of that tight spot safely, its best for everyone involved.
I think Idahos cycling laws make sense. The problem with them, though, is that too many people are confused about the laws and dont know what to expect. If ever there was an issue in search of a savvy, slick public awareness campaign, this is it.
Kevin Richert: 377-6437, Twitter: @KevinRichert