Having burned through almost 14,000 square miles of western forest, killed dozens of people, and cost federal agencies almost $3 billion, this year’s extensive wildfires have had one positive effect: They’ve gotten Democrats and Republicans in Congress finally to act.
Senators from Washington, Oregon and Idaho have introduced legislation that would let timber companies clear brush and harvest trees from federal lands in parts of the so-called wildlife-urban interface, rendering it less vulnerable to uncontrollable fires. The companies would be able to do this without going through the usual demanding environmental reviews. The agreement would make it possible to spend more on both fire-fighting and forest management.
This wouldn’t solve the wildfire problem, which is rooted in the larger calamity of climate change. It wouldn’t even provide for fire suppression on a grand scale: Just 1 percent of national lands would be covered by the legislation. But it would make a difference where lives are most at risk. The measure is an essential first step toward closer political cooperation on the issue, and it deserves support.
Failure to act up to now illustrates Washington dysfunction all too well. Wildfires have overwhelmed the Forest Service’s fire budget in the past several years, leading the agency to borrow from other accounts, using money that’s needed to manage forests and make them more resistant to wildfires. Both parties understand this needs to change—separate provision needs to be made for big fires—but partisan quarrels over fire prevention have blocked reform.
Republicans have wanted to grant timber companies leeway to thin forests without exacting environmental review. Democrats have insisted on strong protections for vulnerable species and waterways. The new compromise is based on work by Forest Service scientists showing a need to prioritize restoration work in the most vulnerable forests, many of which are dense with combustible ponderosa pines. The legislation further narrows the focus to federal lands closest to communities and water supplies.
For the next 10 years, any thinning and restoration performed on the remaining 99 percent on national lands would remain subject to the usual environmental review. In the meantime, separate legislation in both the Senate and the House would provide emergency funding for wildfire-fighting, in much the same way that money is allocated for other natural disasters.
It’s a shame that it took this year’s raging fires to push Congress to fix something that should have been fixed a decade ago. But if lawmakers act now, the US will be better prepared to face the next wildfire season.