We’ll agree with Sen. Ron Wyden about one thing. The nation’s Western forests are a mess. And while weather is part of the problem and out of human control, forest health — something we can improve — is also an issue.
Wyden was also right to decry a system in which money to actually do good in the forest ends up being spent on fighting fires. He’s probably also right in believing that better equipment for that fight, including a beefed-up fleet of air tankers, would help prevent the devastation that’s become all too common in recent years.
More important than better equipment, however, is restoring health to forests that have been sadly neglected in recent years.
That doesn’t mean wholesale logging. It does mean such things as extensive thinning, controlled burns and other projects to reduce fuels on the forest floor. It does mean a system in which forest health project managers can spend as much on doing the work as they must spend on planning and defending their plans in court.
It also means more efforts like those of the Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project, a group that works to reach consensus on forest restoration projects and future stewardship of forest land. If such efforts can speed projects and reduce appeals, they’re well worth it.
Too, it means an expansion of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which became law in 2003. The act applies largely to land near communities, though amendments proposed in 2009 would have allowed fuels reduction projects farther from urban areas. Unfortunately, the amendments died.
It’s impossible to say that this summer’s wildfires are solely the product of drought in the West. It’s equally impossible to blame them all on poor forestry practices in the 20th century. A paper by the Society of American Foresters notes, for example, that while fire suppression practices after 1930 have harmed forests, 19th century low-intensity fires, set by indigenous people, which helped keep them healthy, were dramatically reduced in the late 1800s.
Quicker identification of fire and better tools to fight it are critical, to be sure. But Wyden must put as much effort into improving forest health as either of the other two.