Opinion Pieces

The Daily News: Opinion Editorial: Forest Management

Over the past few weeks, we didn’t have to turn on the TV or see photos online to understand the severity of the wildfires burning up and down the West Coast.  

Unbreathable air shut us into our homes. The dark skies gave us a gut-wrenching, hopeless feeling. Many Washington, Oregon, and California residents lost homes and businesses. Hundreds of thousands of acres of vital wildlife habitat were destroyed.

As always, our brave first responders battled the blaze in a huge effort to protect our communities. Resources for firefighting are critical, and I’ve worked to successfully increase funding for wildland fire preparedness from my position in Congress.

But we don’t need to put first responders in harm’s way, battling these largely preventable crises every year. We shouldn’t resign ourselves to a “new normal” of annual destruction and pollution, where we’re worried about our lives, homes, and loved ones with asthma or fragile health conditions. There are steps we can take immediately in our northwest forests to drastically reduce the scope and duration of these destructive, unnatural fires.

I agree with this quote from Washington’s Democrat Commissioner of Public Lands, Hillary Franz: “By actively managing our forests – using strategies such as prescribed burns and thinning – we can restore forests to a more natural and resilient condition. We can bring our forests back to health, boost jobs in rural Washington, and reduce the threat of wildfires.

A changing climate is also a real factor in creating some of the conditions that contribute to fire. But we are virtually fanning the flames if we only throw up our hands, ignore forest management, and wait for the entire world to agree on climate change. Reducing carbon emissions, including the carbon released by our burning forests, and taking science-based forest management action is not an either/or choice. Let’s do both.

The damage done by inaction on forest management is no exaggeration. A recent news story provides a tragic example: a U.S. Forest Service thinning project near Mt. Hood was suddenly halted by a familiar foe of science-based forest management – an extremist environmental group from the city of Portland. The group and its lawyers, like many extremist groups before it, sued successfully to stop the project and supposedly “save” old-growth and the spotted owl.

The result? A lightning storm ignited a fire in the project area that decimated more than 17,000 acres, including significant old-growth and owl territory.

Enough. The U.S. Forest Service needs to find a way to let science-based management practices win the day – not special interest-funded lawyers. 

Admittedly, the Forest Service has been hampered by the harmful practice of “fire borrowing” which meant it was robbing from forest management and other non-fire accounts to fight catastrophic wildfires. Congress finally put an end to fire borrowing in 2017. The Forest Service needs to fight extremist lawsuits in court, and then use its replenished funding to finish these important projects.

And it has to catch up from years of neglect in our federal forests. Dead branches, leaves, immature trees, and brush – known as ladder fuels – lie untouched on the forest floor. These ladder fuels allow fires to grow rapidly and uncontrollably. They need to be removed.

There’s also an overpopulation of mature and harvestable trees. U.S. Forest Service officials estimate that hundreds of millions of board feet of lumber are added each year to the forest in my backyard, the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, while only about 50 million board feet are harvested. These trees grow uncontrolled, competing for sunlight and water in densely packed areas that attract pests to infect them and reduce them to overgrown kindling.

Congress has failed to advance a solution I helped shape, Rep. Westerman’s bipartisan Resilient Federal Forests Act. It should revisit this solution immediately. The bill would address our forest health by making it easier to salvage timber and reforest after fires, would manage forests to emphasize “early seral” habitat that’s critical for the species that provide food for the Spotted Owl, and gives the U.S. Forest Service other critical tools to proactively manage forests.

Again, a lack of active management has left our forests with a diminished natural resiliency due to overgrowth which forces an unnatural competition between trees for water, leads to stress-induced bug kill and disease, and creates an explosion of ladder fuels that energizes the infernos we are experiencing.

We can fix this. We don’t need to resign to a future of smoldering homes and 500-plus air quality indexes. I’m going to continue to do my part in fighting for common sense solutions that give our forests and communities a fighting chance.