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Forest management reforms needed to stop our forests from going up in smoke

 


The sight and smell of choking haze and dangerous levels of smoke from burning forests have become all too common during our Pacific Northwest summers. Major fires have struck Central Washington time and again, year after year, and nothing will change until we decide we have had enough. This year, Central Washington communities are grappling with the Boyds, Cougar Creek, Crescent Mountain, Grass Valley, McCleod, and Miriam fires, adding up to thousands of burned acres. Okanogan County Fire District 8 volunteer firefighter Brett Read was hospitalized this month with serious burns after the wind shifted during the Grass Valley Fire. The 2015 Okanogan Complex fire took the lives of three firefighters. In California this year, six firefighters have died. This summer, fires have burned more than 6 million acres in the West. The high price of these fires – in property and lives – will continue until we make the necessary changes to prevent them from occurring.

This year, Congress finally approved bipartisan reforms I co-sponsored to end “fire borrowing,” a funding problem that prevented federal agencies from predicting their budgets and resources available to fight fires. I maintain that addressing budgeting problems is part of the solution, but additional reforms to boost active forest management are still needed to reduce hazardous fuels.

U.S. Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke recently wrote that, “fires are burning hotter and more intense, due in part to hot and dry weather and in part to the fuels that overload our forests. These fuels fill forests from the floor, where highly-combustible, dry pine needles act as kindling to jump-start the tiniest spot fire, all the way up to the crown where beetle-killed trees dot the mountains like matches. In between the floor and the crown, there are years’ worth of dead logs, overgrown shrubs and snags, which many firefighters call ‘widow makers’ because they are so deadly.” The answer lies in improving forest management.

Secretary Zinke and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue promised this month to work with states to reduce brush and fire fuels through controlled burns and removing small trees. I strongly support the effort to improve land management in order to prevent catastrophic wildfires from occurring in the first place.

During this 115th Congress, the House of Representatives approved the Resilient Federal Forests Act, legislation I cosponsored, to give the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management additional management tools to improve the health of our forests. The Senate has not moved on that legislation.

House Natural Resource Committee Chairman Rob Bishop has pointed out that there is still time for Congress to enact real reforms, if the Senate chooses to act: “This year’s farm bill provides a vehicle for major policy changes. The conferees working on the farm bill must integrate active forest management practices into the overarching piece of legislation.”

I urge my colleagues in the Senate to move on forest management reforms approved in the House so that we can prevent fires before they start.

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