After another devastating year of wildfires in Oregon and across the West, the national forest health bill approved by the House Wednesday is a breath of fresh air.
The Resilient Federal Forest Act of 2017, H.R. 2936, would make significant strides toward preventing the clouds of smoke choking our communities every summer as we watch our homes, wildlife habitat and economic livelihood burn with our forests.
In the last decade, wildfires have consumed more than 36,000 structures. From the homes lost locally in 2015’s Canyon Creek Complex to this year’s Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia Gorge, more people are realizing just how dire the situation is on many of our national forests. With hotter and drier conditions expected in the future, it will only get worse.
Despite bipartisan agreement on the severity of the problem, little has been accomplished in Washington, D.C., to address it. Oregon Rep. Greg Walden said, with support from the Trump administration, the bill this year actually has a “good opportunity.”
Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats, have championed a major component of this bill — ending “fire borrowing,” where funds intended for fire prevention through active forest management are re-appropriated to cover the ever-increasing cost of fighting fires. We hope they will work through any other issues they may have to support this bill.
Critics of the bill claim it would promote clearcutting, wiping out vast swaths of trees to appease logging interests, but that assertion is misguided. The bill mandates that all forest management activities “shall be conducted in a manner consistent with the forest plan,” which is developed to meet the Forest Service’s multiple-use mandate to balance competing interests, including logging and recreation. In short, the forests will not be clearcut.
What the bill actually does is streamline the environmental review process for certain high-priority projects, such as reducing the risk of wildfire, addressing insect and disease infestations and protecting wildlife habitat and municipal water sources. Even then, those projects are limited to a maximum of 10,000 acres — unless developed by a collaborative group when the maximum is increased to 30,000 acres. For perspective, the Malheur National Forest alone comprises 1.7 million acres.
And the streamlined process — providing categorical exclusions to address high-risk situations — still requires soliciting public feedback through the scoping process and reviewing for extraordinary circumstances, such as endangered species, wetlands and watersheds. The process, according to the Government Accountability Office, still takes six months on average — far better than the stymieing 4.5-year average for environmental impact statements, but far from a rubber stamp ignoring environmental issues.
The bill would provide other benefits as well, especially in Eastern Oregon. The rule preventing the harvest of trees greater than 21 inches in diameter — which local forest officials have said sometimes results in unhealthy forest areas — would finally be rescinded.
The bill would also require the Forest Service to consult with the county government before decommissioning a road within a designated highly fire-prone area and to solicit possible alternatives to closing the road. Compared to a national road density goal issued from D.C. without regard for the conditions on the ground, this would allow greater flexibility to maintain access to be able to fight the catastrophic fires devastating our communities.
Congressman Walden succinctly summed up the current situation: “Fires burn dramatically, catastrophically and very destructively. They don’t go through any analysis. They don’t get permission first. They just go.”
Without action, they will continue to do so — taking homes and habitat indiscriminately.
We urge Sens. Wyden and Merkley to consider the inevitable consequences of inaction and to support this bill to save our forests and our communities.