U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho) are visiting the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise Tuesday to thank firefighters for their extremely hard and dangerous work in yet another hazardous season for fighting wildfires. During the visit on Tuesday, the Senators will note that the country can do better in preventing catastrophic fires by using collaborative land management efforts and stronger proactive management on the nation's public lands.
Wyden, Crapo and Risch say that given the tools, federal agencies can do a better job of reducing the risks of catastrophic wildland fires. They are calling for steps such as an increase local decision-making, stewardship contracting through laws such as the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Act (CFLRA) and a consistent commitment by federal agencies and Congress to make sure those who deal with catastrophic fire and public lands management have the tools and the policy they need for sound and consistent decisions regarding land treatment programs.
Wyden is the Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and recently introduced S. 1301, which calls for restoration of forest landscapes and other forest management while protecting old-growth forests in eastern Oregon. Wyden says increasing active management of federal lands can create healthier, more fire-resistant forests. Current forestry programs, he adds, do not provide the stable source of jobs of funding for local communities that they could given a change in policy.
"The status quo is unacceptable," Wyden said. "At meetings across Oregon, I am told continually about the frustrations of reduced harvest rates in our forests, reductions in hazardous fuels programs, and other active management programs." In the way of comparison, Wyden noted the Forest Service treated 1.87 million acres for hazardous fuels in 2012, but expects to treat only 685,000 acres next year.
Crapo has long championed collaboration as key to bringing consensus to land management decisions and end decades of conflict which often result in poor forest health and allow conditions on public land that make fires worse. Crapo says the collaboration that creates the consensus needed to improve forest health also prevents fires.
Crapo authored the Owyhee Initiative collaborative legislation that was signed into law in 2008 and has formed the Clearwater Basin Collaborative in central Idaho that has spawned new plans for improvement in elk and fish habitat and forest health, while increasing jobs and contemplating increased recreational opportunities and protection for lands and rivers in the region. He has also introduced bipartisan legislation to make firefighting a higher priority for the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) and sponsored several efforts to stop proposed reductions in forest harvests and federal spending on fire mitigation planning.
"With an ever-greater fuel load in our national forests and near-record drought, wildfires increase in intensity and severity each year, causing millions of dollars in economic damages, loss of life and the destruction of thousands of homes and other structures across the nation," noted Crapo. "It is clear that we need to maintain focus on improving the health of our federal lands, decreasing the threat of catastrophic fires and increasing active management to ensure that public lands managers and firefighters have the best resources available to protect our communities. Current land management policies are not keeping pace with the growing risk. Sound land management based on consensus-driven collaboration, will help prevent and reduce fires, and has proven successful in restoring jobs and economic and ecological conditions in our nation's pristine backcountry areas."
"It is very important for our Idaho communities near federal lands to gain the ability to thin the threat. The benefits it will provide in protecting our forests, providing defensible space for firefighters, reducing fire risk to homeowners and creating jobs are significant," said Risch, who serves with Wyden on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "On the suppression side of things, we have had great success in southern Idaho with Rangeland Fire Protection Associations helping the federal government to fight fires. I applaud their efforts this fire season."
Wyden, Crapo and Risch commended U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, a former resident of both Oregon and Idaho, for his willingness to embrace collaboration and local input into forest planning decisions. The Senators say Tidwell's commitment is something both members of Congress and other federal agencies should build on as the damage and loss of life from wildland fires continues to mount.