The need for change in federal management of forests is about more than just money. But Oregon should take what it can get. And due in part to the efforts of Oregon’s congressional delegation, Congress has approved more money for fighting wildfires.
About $300 million was added to the relief package for hurricane victims in Texas to pay for wildfires. That should enable federal agencies to more easily pay for fighting wildfires in Oregon and elsewhere that have gone over what was budgeted.
Federal agencies, such as the Forest Service, set their wildfire budgets every year. What often happens is that the costs of fighting wildfires blows right through the wildfire budget. Then, the agencies would have to cut other programs to pay for wildfire costs. It’s called “fire borrowing.”
Fire thievery would be a better name. To pay for wildfire, the Forest Service may have to cut back on things that might reduce the damage of wildfires, such as thinning.
Oregon’s Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, as well as Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, have repeatedly called on Congress to change the way the federal government pays for catastrophic wildfires. Instead of fire thievery, they argue that paying to fight catastrophic wildfires — basically the bigger and badder ones — should be treated like the natural disasters they are.
The federal government still pays for the wildfires, in either case. But at least the Forest Service wouldn’t have to gut budgets for thinning, planning and trails if it guesses wrong about the cost of wildfires.
Of course, there’s more change needed in the way federal lands are managed. For instance, wilderness boundaries should not be located right next to where people live, such as in the proposed wilderness near Crooked River Ranch.
There should be a buffer where federal land managers have the freedom they need to reduce fire danger and fight fires however they see fit. Walden has been working hard to fix that problem for Crooked River Ranch. Congress should take action on his bill to do that, too.