As Oregon’s wildfires near containment, there are discussions in Salem and Washington, D.C., about the causes of this summer’s fires and the staggering costs of fire suppression to taxpayers. It’s too late to reverse the damage of this year’s fire season, but it’s not too early to start thinking about protecting our forests and communities from future wildfires.
Many believe reducing heavy fuels on our federally owned forests through active forest management is the best solution. We can’t stop fires, but logging, thinning and prescribed fire can help reduce their size and severity and can help mitigate the impacts of drought and climate change. Others believe that fixing federal budgeting for wildfire suppression is key. Both views are correct.
The 2017 wildfire season isn’t over, but the statistics continue to paint a grim picture of the conditions in our national forests. According to the Oregon Department of Forestry, roughly 93 percent of the acres burned have been on land under the firefighting jurisdiction of the U.S. Forest Service. Of the $340.3 million in overall large-fire suppression costs, Forest Service-protected lands are responsible for 88 percent of those costs.
National forests comprise about 60 percent of Oregon’s total forestland. An analysis commissioned by the Oregon Forest Resources Institute found there are more than 350 million individual trees standing dead in the 14 million acres of national forestland in Oregon. The analysis found that national forests have twice as many of these so-called “zombie trees” per acre than privately owned forests that are typically managed. And the federally owned forests have a mortality rate of 55 percent.
National forests have a timber harvest rate of just 8 percent of total growth, and much of the tree mortality is occurring on land that is open and suitable for timber harvests. We can responsibly increase harvests on federal land to help restore forest health and resiliency to fire, but the U.S. Forest Service lacks the legal tools, funds and personnel to better manage our forests. Not surprisingly, tree mortality is increasing as wildfire suppression is exhausting more of the Forest Service’s budget.
Firefighting now accounts for over 56 percent of the agency’s overall budget, and the agency often exhausts its funding for suppression, forcing it to raid non-fire accounts to fight larger fires. The resulting practice of “fire borrowing” can delay or prevent funding from being spent to plan important forest management projects.
Legislation has been introduced in Congress that aims to end fire borrowing, but that isn’t enough. It’s time to address the fundamental problem of unhealthy forests by increasing active management activities. That can only be accomplished by finding alternatives to obstructive litigation and reforming a federal regulatory process that prohibitively increases the time and costs of forest projects on federal lands.
Reducing fuel loads on our forests can reduce the size of catastrophic wildfires, and subsequently reduce the costs of fighting fires. Timber harvests and other thinning activities also generate more dollars for the Forest Service to manage public lands for multiple uses, including enhancing wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities. This solution will also create more jobs in the woods, in the mills and in many rural small businesses that benefit from a vibrant forest products sector.
Sixty to 80 million acres of federal forestland are overstocked with dead and dying trees and facing serious threats from fires and insects.
The forest health crisis affecting our national forests will only be addressed if we treat its underlying cause through more active management. Fixing wildfire spending alone will not fix the problem when our federal land managers are handcuffed by lawsuits and well-intended but counterproductive regulations.
Congress must act without delay, because the next fire season will be here before we know it.
— Nick Smith is executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, a nonprofit.