The Hill: Resilient Federal Forests Act treats symptom and disease

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Washington, September 30, 2015 | Liz Margolis (202-225-5711) | comments

As you read this, catastrophic wildfires continue to burn the western United States with no end in sight. More than 8.8 million acres of federal land have burned this summer. The U.S. Forest Service is transferring another $250 million from forest management accounts to battle these fires — a practice known as fire borrowing. This brings the total amount of additional appropriations for wildfires to $700 million for the year — the highest amount since 2002. Yesterday, Congress passed legislation reimbursing the Forest Service for this amount. Unfortunately, more funding alone will not fix our wildfire crisis.

On Sept. 15, the Obama administration implored Congress to address fire borrowing. This is a problem that must be fixed, but dealing with fire borrowing alone only treats the symptoms without addressing the underlying disease.

On July 9, the House passed H.R. 2647, the Resilient Federal Forests Act. H.R. 2647 treats both the disease of overgrown, mismanaged forests and the resulting symptoms of wildfire, disease and insect infestations. It solves the fire-borrowing problem and sets in place wise forest management policies that reduce the risk of future catastrophic wild fires.

The timing of the president’s request comes as California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has already estimated a price tag of $212 million for his state’s efforts to fight wildfires this season. The Valley fire in California is on track to become the worst wildfire in the state’s history. With more than 60 large fires burning across the West and several other “small” fires burning in the same area, costs are estimated to soar even higher.

While federal and state governments are looking at hundreds of millions in costs to fight wildfires, property owners face staggering losses that will likely soar into the billions. With fires continuing to grow, more homes and lives are at risk.

The current lack of preventative forest management action is proving catastrophic for our national forest system. With the threat of massive fires growing every year, addressing only one aspect of the problem is both shortsighted and dangerous. In addition to classifying certain large-scale wildfires as disasters, H.R. 2647 also promotes proper forest management practices based on proven science.

Part of active management is not only prevention but quick reforestation following a catastrophic event. Current regulation includes environmental review processes that are simply too slow to be effective for the removal of dead trees. On average, the Forest Service reforests less than 3 percent of areas destroyed by wildfire. The Resilient Federal Forests Act requires 75 percent of an area impacted by wildfire be reforested within five years and allows for expedited environmental review to ensure the removal of dead trees to pay for reforestation efforts. 

The federal government successfully conducted an expedited environmental review for salvage work on forests in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. It can do the same on our national forests after wildfires.

These efforts at reforestation and forest management are not small tasks, which is why the bill includes a provision to allow the Forest Service to accept funds from state governments for assistance with management projects. Additionally, tribes will be given the opportunity to assist with the management of national forest lands adjacent to reservations in order to reduce the risk of not only wildfires but also insects and disease.

With the loss of nearly 9 million acres this year due to catastrophic wildfires, Americans — especially those in the West — are seeing the direct impact of ineffective management. We need to deal with this problem in a fiscally responsible way, and that is why we are urging our colleagues in the Senate to quickly take up and pass the Resilient Federal Forests Act. The millions of acres burned, hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage and lost timber and the loss of lives this fire season demand immediate action on this long-term solution.

Westerman has represented Arkansas’s 4th Congressional District since 2015. He sits on the Budget; the Natural Resources; and the Science, Space and Technology committees. Schrader has represented Oregon’s 5th Congressional District since 2009. He sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

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