By Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho)
This summer, residents on the east coast experienced something we Idahoans face every year: wildfire smoke. While the smoke from the Canadian wildfires grabbed headlines, it paled in comparison to what Idahoans and other westerners experience each summer.
A new fire season is already underway, and the potential for this season does not hint at a restful summer for the wildland firefighters who contain the flames or the Idahoans who will live with the consequences. The late, wet spring helped native and invasive grasses grow tall in southern Idaho, which will fuel range fires. Meanwhile, the Panhandle entered the fire season already in a drought, leaving our forested land in North Idaho vulnerable to catastrophic fire.
This issue is frustrating because the solution is simple: we have to thin the threat. Hardworking Idahoans want to protect their communities from fire and their loved ones from wildfire smoke, but a web of federal red tape prevents us from taking commonsense steps to reduce fuels in our forest.
Fortunately, Congress has an opportunity to better our forest management policies through the 2023 Farm Bill. In addition to reauthorizing programs important to the agricultural industry, the legislation also includes opportunities to build on past forest management successes.
Previous Farm Bills expanded programs that have advanced commonsense projects in our forests, like the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration and Good Neighbor Authority (GNA) programs. These efforts have notably improved forest management and health already. Congress can capitalize on these successful programs by expanding Idaho forest collaboratives and land managers’ ability to work directly with federal partners.
One opportunity is the Treating Tribes and Counties as Good Neighbors Act, which I introduced with Senator Mike Crapo and Congressman Russ Fulcher. This legislation will fully recognize Tribal and county governments as GNA partners and better incentivize them to conduct fuel treatment and conservation projects. Our legislation will also recognize Idaho’s checkerboard landscape by allowing cross boundary restoration, instead of limiting work to where a federal forest ends and where state, county, Tribal, or private land begins.
Another strong addition to the farm bill is a legislative fix to the 2015 Cottonwood decision. This court decision tied up responsible forest management projects in red tape, and it has trapped commonsense fuels reduction projects in an endless cycle of activist litigation. The Farm Bill is the perfect opportunity to fix the ruling and finally get vital forest management back on track.There is no question federal forests in the West are in crisis due to overgrowth and mismanagement. Congress must take a hard look at failures of the past, take full advantage of the 2023 Farm Bill, and implement new, effective policies so we can build healthier and more resilient forests.