PENDLETON, Ore. — Out of the ashes of another record-breaking wildfire season across the West, Oregon lawmakers are calling for changes in the way national forests are managed and how the government pays for fighting increasingly large, destructive fires.
Rep. Greg Walden, the state’s lone Republican member of Congress, visited Pendleton and Hermiston on Thursday where he touted the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017, which passed the House Committee on Natural Resources in June. The controversial bill includes provisions that would expedite certain forest thinning projects, while establishing a pilot program to resolve legal challenges through arbitration.
Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, meanwhile, joined a bipartisan group of senators pushing to end the practice of “fire borrowing,” where the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are forced to rob money from fire prevention programs to pay for fighting wildfires.
Their bill, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2017, would make federal disaster funding available when the cost of firefighting exceeds the 10-year average, thereby maintaining the agencies’ budgets for other conservation and restoration programs.
In a statement Wednesday, Wyden said communities are put in danger and fire prevention work is left undone because of the backward fire budgeting system.
“It’s past time for Congress to make it a top priority to end fire borrowing, stop the erosion of the Forest Service becoming the ‘Fire Service,’ and start treating wildfires like the natural disasters they are,” Wyden said.
The Forest Service has spent more than $2 billion so far on wildfires nationwide in 2017, setting a new record. Nearly 8 million acres of forest have been consumed by fire this summer, including 678,000 acres in Oregon.
The problem, Walden said, is a lack of active management in the forests, which has resulted in a buildup of overly dense and dead tree stands ready to burn.
“I don’t want to see our forests continue to go up (in flames) like they are,” Walden said during a meeting Thursday with the East Oregonian editorial board.
More than three-quarters of the Umatilla and Wallowa-Whitman national forests are at moderate to high risk for uncharacteristic fire, according to the Northern Blue Mountains Coalition, a group dedicated to increasing forest thinning and logging. Across the country, 58 million acres of national forests are at high or very high risk of severe wildfires — an area equal to the size of Pennsylvania and New York combined.
“We’ve got to deal with these forests,” Walden said.
A version of the Resilient Federal Forests Act has passed the House each of the last four years. It focuses on measures to speed up the pace of restoration, providing categorical exclusions for certain projects to expedite environmental review.
Projects that would qualify for categorical exclusion include hazardous fuels reduction, salvaging dead trees, protecting watersheds or improving wildlife habitat. The bill caps project sizes at 10,000 acres, or 30,000 acres if they are developed by a multi-interest collaborative group.
The bill also directs the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a pilot program to resolve lawsuits filed against forest management through arbitration, rather than heading to court, and would prevent plaintiffs from recovering their attorney fees in such cases under the Equal Access to Justice Act.
Opponents of the legislation, however, claim it would severely undermine environmental review and cater to the interests of the timber industry. Steve Pedery, conservation director for Oregon Wild, described the bill as a wish list for timber lobbyists.
“It’s really about maximizing the profits of logging corporations over the health of our public lands, and the ability for Americans to enjoy them,” Pedery said.
Specific to Eastern Oregon, the Resilient Federal Forests Act would allow logging of trees more than 21 inches in diameter. Individual forest management plans would also no longer be subject to the National Environmental Protection Act — the Blue Mountains Forest Plan, which includes the Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur forests, is 13 years overdue for its latest revision.
Speaking Sept. 14 to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Walden urged support for the bill as a means to jump-start forestry reform.
“Year after year, we have catastrophic wildfires on federal lands, some of which have been set aside and managed in a way that they have no management,” Walden said. “So if you want to do something that is extraordinarily important, join us in reforming the way we manage our precious public lands and federal forests to reduce the fuel loads.”
As for fire borrowing, a bipartisan group of senators has introduced the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act to ensure the firefighting budget does not eat into the fire prevention budget, and allow projects to proceed with greater financial resources.
In the same joint statement with Wyden, Merkley said it is time to reverse what has become a vicious cycle.
“The way we fund wildfire suppression today is counterproductive and crazy,” Merkley said. “As this fire season has proven all too vividly, robbing from forest health and fire prevention programs to pay for suppression only creates a vicious cycle of bigger and bigger fires.
The bill would work by capping the firefighting budget at the most recent 10-year average, with any additional funding for fighting wildfires coming from federal disaster relief coffers. That would place wildfires more in line with other natural disasters, such as the hurricanes that have devastated parts of Texas and Florida.
Supporters include other Western lawmakers from across the political aisle, including Idaho Republicans Mike Crapo and Jim Risch; Colorado Republican Cory Gardner and Democrat Michael Bennet; California Democrat Dianne Feinstein; Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell; and Utah Republican Orrin Hatch.