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Smoke from wildfires this summer caused health problems for many locals and firefighting efforts cost taxpayers

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Seth CrawfordThis summer, we've seen over 8.5 million acres of our national forests burned in destructive wildfires.

The West was home to a majority of the more than 49,000 fires pumping smoke and ash into communities across the county. More than 525,000 of those acres were located here in Oregon, and 155,929 have burned locally, making this year one of our worst in decades.

Many of our worst fires either started or gained significant momentum in designated wilderness areas. The lack of roads and other infrastructure make it incredibly difficult for our first responders to effectively fight the fires.

One of the most obvious effects of wildfires to people is the amount of smoke in the air. This summer, I personally watched my normally healthy daughters cough and wheeze. I cannot imagine how difficult it's been for our resident's young and old who are already suffering from respiratory issues. In addition to respiratory issues, the thick smoke limits visibility and keeps people inside instead of enjoying our uniquely beautiful Central Oregon views. These issues effect 100 percent of the citizens in our community.

You can't turn on the news without hearing about how carbon emissions are affecting our climate. Large wildfires in the western United States can pump as much carbon into the atmosphere in a few weeks as cars do in an entire year.

NASA reports that carbon emissions from wildfires have increased by more than 200 percent since the 1980s. This time frame coincides with the addition of laws and regulations on federal land that dramatically reduced the amount management and number of trees harvested. It's interesting that the environmentalists that want our state to be a leader in clean energy stay silent as our fires burn out of control from lack of management.

The financial impact of fires to our community is devastating. There is the direct cost of fighting fires, but in addition to those costs, we also experience lost economic activity from tourism and recreation, destruction of harvestable timber, destruction of property and infrastructure, and the cost of rehabilitating areas destroyed by fire. These factors result in billions of dollars of lost revenue at the local, state and federal level.

The BLM has calculated the costs, stating "wildfire fires have cost taxpayers $340 million just in suppression costs, but conservatively it has likely cost our economy more than $1 billion."

Our forests are riddled with wilderness areas, national recreation areas, national monuments and other special designations that restrict the options and tools available to manage those areas. Many of these areas are where we see the heaviest fuel loads that provide the environment for fires to start and spread quickly. These areas do not have the roads or other access points necessary to effectively fight fires. The result is scorched earth and destruction of habitat.

Trees were once our state's best assets, providing renewable assets and good-paying jobs. Under these regulations, what once was an asset is now a liability. You may agree or disagree with some or all of these designations, the very designations that were designed to protect them are now ensuring their destruction. We must have access to effectively fight fire and manage these forests.

I am very confident that we can reduce the number and severity of wildfires by more effectively managing our public lands. One-size-fits-all regulations that might be appropriate in Nevada or New Hampshire don't work here.

In Crook County, we have federal employees working hard to manage our forests, hamstrung by the laws written by the bureaucrats in Washington. Another major road block is non-governmental environmental special interest groups, like Oregon Wild, who are quick to sue and restrict activities in public lands. All too often these groups create exclusiveness instead of inclusiveness in your public lands.

Reasonable Democrats also understand the scope of the problem. Tom Tidwell, U.S. Forest Service Chief under President Obama, stated: "If you look at it over four years and you look at just the growth of the 10-year average, we could have easily been treating millions of more acres over the last four years. We have the science, we have the experience, and we have study after study that shows that our projects are effective to reduce the cost of wildfires," Tidwell said. "There are independent studies that show that this work makes a difference and that we can reduce the size of wildfires by anywhere from 30 to 70 percent, and on average, 41 percent, by getting out there and doing the work."

It is one thing to understand how devastating these wildfires can be. But the real question is, what can we do as a county and as citizens to rectify this situation? We need to continue to educate our legislators and hold them accountable for fixing the broken laws and regulations.

Rep. Greg Walden has been a strong ally, pushing to limit wilderness designations and promoting common sense legislation for management of our forests. He needs our help. One way to help is by writing letters to our senators, demanding that they take action. They have said they want Oregon to be a global leader on climate issues. If we look at recent years, the most effective way to reduce Oregon's emissions is through the proper management of our forests.

As a citizen, you can also support organizations like Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities (www.healthyforests.org) that advocate for responsible management of our forests. They are also a great resource for detailed information and data on the current state of our forests.

We need to make sure we are using all of the tools at our disposal, including coordinating with agencies like the USFS and BLM to ensure our local interests are represented in the management of our public lands.

Federal employees here, in Crook County, also see opportunities for better management, but they can't implement their ideas until Washington, D.C., allows them to have some flexibility. Coordination could be a powerful tool that helps us to be more effective at working with the federal land managers to improve our public lands together.

This issue is much bigger than just Crook County, but we have an important role to play in the conversation and can bring solutions to the table.

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