By Dylan Kruse

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As another wildfire season approaches, we could all use a little assurance that efforts are underway to curb the rise in extreme fires we have seen in the past few years. Fortunately, a bipartisan group of senators, led by Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, announced the introduction of legislation (S. 2811) recently that would reauthorize and expand the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP). This program, which helps fund collaborative and community-based federal forest management, has a proven track record of improving forest health, reducing wildfire risk, and supporting rural communities. The bill would extend the program for an additional 10 years, and double its authorized funding level to $80 million a year.

That’s good news for Oregon’s 11 National Forests, which could use some help. After more than a century of fire suppression and inadequate management, these lands have become increasingly vulnerable to uncharacteristic outbreaks of insects, diseases and wildfires. The result is more than 2.6 million acres of national forestlands in Eastern Oregon and Washington in need of restoration. In Oregon alone, the Forest Service estimates that there is a backlog of 1.8 million acres of national forestland already approved for fuels reduction and thinning. The need is painfully clear, and the stage is set, but the simple fact remains that this work won’t get completed without dedicated investment from Congress. Unfortunately, CFLRP is set to expire in 2019, making it all the more urgent that Congress passes this bill.

The Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program is one of the best tools we have to reverse the forest health crisis, and the results speak for themselves. Since 2010, the three CFLRP projects in Oregon have:

• Created a total of $177 million in local labor income and an average of 480 jobs created or maintained yearly

• Reduced hazardous fuels to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire on nearly 415,000 acres

• Enhanced habitat condition on over 148,600 acres

• Sold more than 480 million board feet of timber

• Improved access for sports enthusiasts and other recreational visitors by maintaining over 730 miles of trails and improving more than 2,500 miles of roads.

Part of the reason CFLRP has been so successful is because it creates a high bar for performance that prioritizes diverse economic, social, and environmental outcomes. Not only does it require a competitive process to direct investments to where they can have the greatest impact, but it provides long-term funding and stability, a requirement to collaborate with communities to improve project design, and a matching funds mandate to stretch federal dollars further. This means the best projects rise to the surface, the agency gets more work done, and relationships improve between previous adversaries. In fact, a recent survey of Forest Service staff involved with a CFLRP project showed that 80 percent of respondents said the potential threat of fire on their forests has been reduced, and 75 percent of respondents had seen decreased conflict between stakeholders.

The forest health problem in Oregon and the West won’t be solved overnight, but we can’t wait a moment longer to take action. Overcoming these challenges requires federal forest management focused on large-scale, collaborative approaches to increase the pace and scale of restoration, promote healthy forests, and protect the lives and well-being of communities and landowners. Extending and expanding the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program is the right prescription to get the job done. We send our appreciation to Sens. Merkley, Crapo, and all the co-sponsors for their swift action to answer this urgent call. Contact Sens. Merkley and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., today; thank them for their leadership, and ask them to do all they can to pass this bill. The future of Oregon’s forests depends on it.

—Dylan Kruse is the policy director at Sustainable Northwest and lives in Portland.