Rural communities across the West have waited decades for Congress to fix our broken system of federal forest management. Forest growth and mortality continue to rise at unsustainable rates, leading to larger and unnaturally severe catastrophic wildfires that are costlier to contain. Our federal representatives — Republican and Democratic alike — understand the problem and are committed to finding solutions. This isn’t a partisan issue, but we can no longer afford to wait until the next year, the next election, nor the next Congress for our leaders to act.
The Bulletin’s editorial board recently called on our representatives to fix federal wildfire suppression spending before addressing necessary changes to federal forest policy. There’s no doubt the so-called practice of “fire borrowing” is disrupting the U.S. Forest Service’s ability to manage our forests for the greater good. This year we witnessed more than 9.4 million acres of forests and grasslands go up in smoke, costing taxpayers nearly $2 billion and forcing the forest service to temporarily redirect $700 million that would otherwise pay for other important forest projects.
Wildfire suppression spending must be brought under control, but fixing fire borrowing is only treating one symptom of the underlying problem. That’s why The Bulletin should reconsider its opinion that forest policy changes are “meaningless” without first shifting money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for larger fires. Merely ending the budgetary gimmick of fire borrowing will not reverse the trend of larger and costlier wildfires. According to forest service estimates, 60 to 80 million acres of forest land are unhealthy, vulnerable and in need of treatment. To even come close to achieving forest restoration goals in our lifetimes, the agency needs the policy and legal tools to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration today.
The primary factors limiting the management of our national forests today are litigation and the cost and time required for the forest service to satisfy the analysis paralysis that constrains forest management projects. After a forest project is developed, it can take the forest service as long as three years before a single tree is removed. Meeting these compliance requirements costs the agency more than $350 million per year. Then it must spend additional tax dollars to defend these projects in court from the few serial litigants. Considering all the constraints the forest service faces every day, it is little wonder the agency is chronically broke and unable to perform its core functions.
The U.S. House, with the backing of U.S. Rep Greg Walden, R-Hood River, has approved bipartisan legislation that takes reasonable and incremental steps toward addressing these obstacles. It builds upon the success of the 2014 Farm Bill to expand authorities under federal environmental law to help the forest service speed critical forest health projects, and to implement even larger projects if they are developed through local forest collaboration. Because the legislation also offers a fix for federal wildfire suppression funding, it is the most comprehensive solution to move through the current congress.
The House-passed bill is worthy of support, as is the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act proposed by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. Efforts to end fire borrowing and restore forest health are not mutually exclusive. We should encourage our federal representatives to not only treat the symptoms of catastrophic wildfire, but the cause as well. Kicking necessary forest policy changes down the road will only prolong the damaging effects to our forests and rural communities.
— Nick Smith is executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, a nonprofit coalition advocating for active management of federal forest lands.