The U.S. Department of Agriculture has eased rules for logging millions of acres of Northwest forestland considered to be at risk of catastrophic fire.
These are forests where insects and disease have damaged trees and other vegetation, creating fuel for wildfires. These forestlands now have a special designation that allows a streamlined process for logging on larger tracts.
By removing some requirements for environmental reviews, the designation speeds up the process of approving logging operations that are designed to improve forest health and reduce the risk of fire.
While some environmentalists are skeptical that all the designations are really designed for forest health, many governors across the country have embraced the idea and asked the USDA for specific designations in their states.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced designations last week for areas within 94 national forests across 35 states.
In Oregon, Gov. John Kitzhaber requested and received the designation for 5.7 million acres within the Wallowa-Whitman, Umatilla, Malheur, Fremont-Winema and Rogue River Siskiyou national forests.
In Idaho, Gov. Butch Otter successfully proposed 50 treatment areas covering more than 1.8 million acres in the Idaho Panhandle, Nez Perce Clearwater, Salmon Challis, Payette, Sawtooth and Caribou Targhee national forests.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee delayed his request. In a letter to the USDA, Inslee said he is convening a stakeholder group for additional consideration of which areas need the designation, but he wrote that he plans to send a request "at a date in the near future."
Inslee also noted that the accelerated environmental review process allowed by the new designation "can be contentious."
"Reigniting discord among groups who have worked hard together to reach agreement around forest restoration principles and projects would be counterproductive," he wrote.
Oregon State Forester Doug Decker said the new rules are good news for damaged forests on the east side of his state.
"Many of our east side federally owned forests are out of whack," he said. "They're not resilient landscapes as a result of insect and disease and 100 years of fires suppression and changed fire policies."
The designations don't come with any funding, Decker noted, so restoration projects involving logging operations will still need to be funded before the expedited planning process can begin.
But, he said, the designation will likely make funding the projects a higher priority, and once they're funded they will be able to start up fairly quickly.
He pointed to an area of the Fremont-Winema National Forest known as "the red zone." It's where a bark beetle outbreak has wiped out trees across a 330,000-acre area.
"It was known as the red zone, and now it's the dead zone," Decker said. "Virtually every tree as far as you can see has been killed. If you get some lightning and get a fire started in that area, it's going to be catastrophic."
Governors who requested designations based them on the work of collaborative groups that include environmentalists and timber companies. The groups identified areas where logging could help improve forest health.
Steve Pedery, conservation director for the environmental group Oregon Wild, said he's pleased that Kitzhaber deferred to the collaborative groups when making his request. But in an e-mailed response to a reporter's questions, he expressed skepticism about whether all the designations are needed to maintain forest health.
"Some of this push seems driven more by a desire to access federal (money) and increase logging volume than it does improving environmental health," he wrote.