My View: Congress averts next season of smoke
Pamplin Media's strong stance in support of more proactive state and federal policies to control rampant wildfire in Oregon's forests has paid off.
In editorials last fall, local community newspapers pointed out that a perfect storm of climate change, aggressive fire suppression and lack of smart forest management, particularly on federal lands, were creating conditions for out-of-control conflagrations. "No one chooses to reside in Oregon because they love smoky skies and hazardous pollutants," editors opined.
Congress recently took a first step to a solution. After six months of continuing resolutions, Congress finally enacted and President Trump signed the $1.3 trillion Omnibus Appropriations Act — a super plan to fund federal agencies for the remainder of 2018.
Perhaps no part of the act was more important to Oregonians than a plan to improve the way the federal government pays for wildfire suppression, as well as some much-needed forest management reforms.
The bipartisan efforts of Oregon's congressional delegation were crucial to the bill's passage.
As an original sponsor of the first Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, Sen. Ron Wyden met Republicans halfway on management reforms. Sen. Jeff Merkley played a key role from his seat on the Committee on Appropriations. On the House side, Representatives Suzanne Bonamici, Peter DeFazio, Kurt Schrader and Greg Walden have long voiced their support to fix the problem of "fire-borrowing."
The effort dates back to 2014, when it became obvious that federal wildfire-suppression costs were cannibalizing other parts of the U.S. Forest Service's budget for forest management, including restoration, thinning and other measures that reduce wildfire risk. The old plan clearly had failed. Wildfires continued to grow in number, size and intensity. And for many Oregonians, the 2017 "Summer of Smoke" was the last straw.
Oregon's forests will never be "fire-free," nor should they be. Wildfires are part of the forest ecosystem. They remove fuels that can create conflagrations that endanger watersheds, wildlife and communities. Fires thin out smaller trees, generating water, sunlight and nutrients for remaining trees and shrubs. And they create forest clearings favored by pollinators such as bees, butterflies and birds.
We have to live with a certain amount of fire, but we also need to manage our national forests for forest health, fire resiliency and public safety — including creating safer conditions for wildland firefighters.
Fortunately, the omnibus bill includes some common-sense reforms. These include allowing the repair and reconstruction of forest roads under an arrangement that allows state agencies to perform forest management activities on federal land; creating legally sufficient pathways for hazardous fuels and wildfire resiliency projects; amending what's known as the Healthy Forest Restoration Act to allow creation of fuel breaks and firebreaks; and managing vegetation around power lines.
The act also extends the term of stewardship contracts up to 20 years where wildfire is a significant risk. This is extremely important, as it will give loggers and mill owners more certainty about timber supply, which will encourage investment in mills and logging equipment. Long-term, this provision will create jobs and reduce wildfire risk to rural communities.
For fiscal years 2018 and 2019, the bill provides $1.9 billion in fire-suppression funding for the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service. If fire costs exceed that amount, Congress will have to provide additional emergency spending. Future budgets will cap fire-suppression costs, thus stopping the erosion of non-fire funding to fire programs.
It's taken more than 100 years to create the crisis in our public forests, so don't expect results overnight. But Congress' action is an important first step to get us on the path to healthier, more fire-resilient forests.