PHOENIX, June 25 (UPI) -- The new chairwoman of the Western Governors Association said Tuesday that some environmentalists have opposed forest management programs that might have prevented wildfires like those burning thousands of acres in Arizona and Colorado.
Speaking to reporters after an association meeting, Gov. Judy Martz, R-Mont., said as incoming chairwoman, her top priority would be reducing the threat of wildfires to communities and the environment.
"Regardless of our political and philosophical differences, it's imperative that we all join together to act responsibly in preserving forest health, to protect families, wildlife, fisheries, our ecosystem and our economies," Martz said.
Responding to a reporter's question, the Montana Republican said she was shaken by the thousands of people fleeing their homes in eastern Arizona because of a 331,000-acre wildfire and she said better management policies are needed in the nation's forests.
"The environment needs to be taken care of," she said. "When I see people running from their homes going to a shelter and now being there, some of them, over a week, I call this environmental terrorism and it's a terrorism that we have not managed the forest well enough. These people who want to object need to come to the table. There's got to be some balance."
Asked later if she meant environmental activists had contributed to the current wildfire threat in the West, Martz said their appeals had delayed action on forest cleanup programs.
"This is caused by many years of appeals and the appeals do not come from the ones that want to have forest health so the answer to the question is quite obvious," she said.
Martz was asked if her answer meant she was blaming them.
"In my eyes, they played a great role in stopping forest health but I don't call them terrorists. Our environment is in a terrorism mode right now but I do not call those people terrorists. I make that quite clear."
Earlier this week, a spokesman for the Sierra Club said that conservation group had never opposed prescribed burns, one of the common methods used to control undergrowth. Sean Cosgrove said the group does favor other methods to reduce wildland fire danger.
Cosgrove endorsed programs such as the Forest Service's Firewise program that educates and assists the increasing numbers of people moving to the country about how to safeguard their homes.
At the Phoenix meeting, the western governors discussed the destructive and early wildfire season and their campaign to implement a 10-year strategy to improve forest health. The governors and the secretaries of agriculture and interior signed the agreement last month in an Idaho ceremony.
At the news conference, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, R-Idaho, said some environmental groups joined with state, federal and tribal governments in developing the 10-year management plan.
"The key is not to always be looking at suppression, but to look at prevention," he said. "With the 10-year plan that we signed in Idaho City, Idaho, we have a path forward reducing the fuel load so we won't have to see these sort of infernos taking place in all of our states."
Federal funding for programs to remove forest undergrowth have been increased since a destructive wildfire burned more than 200 homes at Los Alamos, N.M., two years ago, but critics contend appeals and lawsuits have slowed implementation.
(Reported by Phil Magers in Dallas)