Letters from the West

Vilsack follows Otter's lead for diseased and insect-infested forests

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today officially designated areas identified by Idaho Gov. Butch Otter as forests where insect and disease are a threat and increase the risk of forest fire.

The projects total 1.7 million acres across Idaho’s 20 million acres of national forest including parts of the Boise National Forest northwest of Banks and around Bogus Basin. Many of the projects Otter identified already have been initially vetted by collaborative groups statewide made up of timber company foresters, environmentalists and others.

Otter’s proposal, put together by the Idaho Department of Lands, identifies 8.8 million acres out of 12.6 million outside of wilderness and other protective designations—70 percent -- that qualify as high risk for insect infestation, disease and fire.

Vilsack, following the 2014 Farm Bill gave Otter’s proposal official designation that will provide the Forest Service, working collaboratively with stakeholders, additional tools and flexibility to more efficiently plan and accomplish restoration treatments in those areas. Vilsack announced the designations in Denver where he discussed additional efforts to help better prepare for and combat the threat of wildfire.

"USDA and the Forest Service are working to improve the health of our national forests and reduce the risk of forest fire," said Vilsack. "The designations announced today, made possible by the 2014 Farm Bill, will support the Forest Service's ability to work with partners to restore areas within the National Forest System that have been impacted by insects and disease."

The new Farm Bill amends the Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003 to allow the Forest Service to more quickly plan projects for insect and disease treatments within designated areas, in an effort to increase the pace and scale of restoration across the National Forest System. Using the new tools in the Farm Bill, restoration projects in these designated areas have to be developed in collaboration with a diverse group of stakeholders and must meet environmental safeguards.

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell designated over 45 million acres* of the National Forest System in response to requests from governors whose states are experiencing, or are at risk of, an insect or disease epidemic. Insect and disease damage makes forests more susceptible to wildfire.

"Working with local partners to combat insect and disease infestation has long been one of our top priorities, and this new authority gives us additional tools to implement landscape scale projects," said Tidwell.

The effects of a warming climate and droughts have ripened conditions for insect and disease epidemics. Currently 81 million acres of the nation's forests are at risk of insects and diseases and 58 million acres of National Forests are at risk of intense wildfire.

Forest Service scientists predict that fire seasons could regularly exceed 12 to 15 million acres burned annually. Landscape scale treatments in the insect and disease designated areas will help adapt forests and watersheds to the effects of a changing climate while lowering the risks of impacts from catastrophic wildfire, Tidwell said.