It’s Congress’ turn to fight wildfires

I was deeply saddened as I watched the sobering footage showing firefighters, land managers and emergency responders struggling to suppress the recent deadly blaze in Northern California. The statistics are even sadder: At least 40 people dead; 5,700-plus homes and buildings decimated; more than 40,000 people evacuated; 200,000 acres of land charred. 

What’s most frustrating is how legislation has factored into our nation being best prepared — or not — to prevent and fight catastrophic wildfires. The recent rash of wildfires has become the new normal for many parts of the country, but how did we get here? Researchers point to hotter and drier weather conditions, longer fire seasons, a lack of active national forest management, underfunding of the U.S. Forest Service’s forest health and restoration programs and legal battles.

The cost of federal wildfire suppression has increased eightfold since 1985, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. From 2006 to 2016, the United States averaged 58,700 wildfires affecting 6,130,319 acres. Just this year, more than 8.8 million acres have been impacted by wildfires.

As with many issues in Washington, America’s national forest management has become ensnared in controversy — to the point where biologists, land managers and teams on the ground cannot perform their jobs effectively. Over the years, conflicting agendas, changes in political leadership and constant clashes in the courts have paralyzed agencies. Programs have reverted to knee-jerk reactions versus thoughtful, research-based recommendations. 

It’s time for change. Along with many partners in the nonprofit and private sectors of sportsmen’s conservation and numerous legislators who are already diligently working in concert on these issues, I urge Congress to act — to implement long-needed changes to laws regulating national forest management and end the erosion of the Forest Service’s budget for proactive forest work. Active forest management and forest restoration can significantly diminish the severity of damage caused by fire. Agencies, however, need adequate funding to effectively manage these lands.

First, we need dedicated disaster funds for fighting large-scale wildfires. Fighting fires should not drain the same budget used to prevent them. As it stands, to fight wildfires in our communities, the Forest Service must divert funds from fire prevention, forest restoration, habitat management and recreation programs. They are burning through budgets on reactive aid, running from one emergency to another. Congress must dedicate funds to react to wildfires as they do other natural disasters. Congress should pass legislation that funds wildfires similarly to other natural disasters.

Second, Congress should make it easier for federal agencies to more efficiently navigate environmental review processes. They should be allowed to quickly enact recommendations unanimously approved by collaborators, such as academic researchers, nonprofit partners, industry and other agencies. For example, in this situation, they should have the authority to expedite the review process by evaluating the recommended “action” alternative versus “no-action.”

Third, Congress must reform the process for challenging federal land-management decisions. Legal action is meant to keep agencies honest, to right an injustice. With respect to federal lands, however, lawsuits have become a way for private interest groups to push their agendas and stall progress. Congress should explore remedies to litigation, such as disclosing the full cost of lawsuits, and direct a focus on arbitration instead of litigation. We must not let special agendas thwart the positive work professional foresters conduct on the ground every day — from research to prescribed burning, to removing hazardous fuels in forests, to educating youth.

Finally, we should enact wildfire funding and forestry reform simultaneously. We cannot fully address the core problems of active forest management and improving agency processes without both reforms. 

I urge Congressional leaders to adopt these important revisions so agencies may continue to improve forest health, reduce the potential for catastrophic wildfire and protect our lands for many future generations. Let’s do what it takes to make the 2017 wildfire season an exception and not the norm.

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