All sides in the U.S. Congress, both House Republicans and Senate Democrats, seem willing to put off critical work on the nation’s forests because they cannot resolve their every disagreement about forest management.
It’s the wrong way to go, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Monday. His department released a report showing that the U.S. Forest Service is gaining ground on forest restoration, though not enough to forestall the catastrophic fires burning each summer.
Western forests are in big trouble. They haven’t been taken care of properly in years, and too often the result is disaster. Just ask the folks in Grant County about that. That’s where this summer’s Canyon Creek complex fires destroyed 43 homes and burned through more than 110,000 acres.
The Forest Service recognizes the problems and each year budgets millions of dollars to work to improve forest health. Then comes summer, and fire season burns through money designated for firefighting and much of what’s been budgeted for forest restoration, as well.
One solution to the problem is to get the Federal Emergency Management Agency involved. If a fire’s big enough, FEMA should share in firefighting cost. Fires are, after all, natural disasters in the same way that hurricanes and floods are.
Yet a bill approved this summer by the U.S. House of Representatives, the Resilient Federal Forests Act pushed in part by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, contains other forest policy changes Senate Democrats will not approve. Sen. Ron Wyden’s bill to shift some costs to FEMA is stalled in the Senate because Republicans are unwilling to approve a money shift without accompanying policy changes.
The standoff cannot go on. Republicans and Democrats agree the shift to FEMA would make a difference in forest health by keeping money available for restoration work. Let both parties in both houses approve Wyden’s bill, then shift to the much-needed overhaul of national forest policy.
That, too, is badly needed and worth fighting for. But without the money shift, the policy changes are meaningless. Approve the money, and then, tackle the rest over time.