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Growing wildfires spark debate over forest management, federal funding

FILE--This Monday, Sept. 4, 2017, file photo provided by KATU-TV shows a wildfire as seen from near Stevenson Wash., across the Columbia River, burning in the Columbia River Gorge above Cascade Locks, Ore. (Tristan Fortsch/KATU-TV via AP, file)

As concerns grow over the looming threat of another powerful hurricane churning toward the southern states, members of Congress from the Pacific Northwest have urged their colleagues to turn their attention to the devastation other natural disasters have inflicted on their constituents this summer.

Wildfires have burned across Oregon, Montana, California, Washington and neighboring states, destroying hundreds of square miles of forest land, forcing thousands of people to evacuate their homes, and causing widespread damage to homes, businesses, and air quality.

The Eagle Creek Fire in Oregon is now considered the top fire priority in the nation, according to KATU, and the 52-square-mile blaze was only five percent contained as of Thursday afternoon. In Montana, the cost of fighting summer wildfires has already completely depleted the state’s fire fund with flames still burning in several areas.

While offering unequivocal support for Hurricane Harvey relief funds, lawmakers from these states have maintained in recent days that they require similar aid.

Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., applauded the House’s passage of $7.85 billion in federal funds for Harvey recovery efforts Wednesday, but he added that Montana also needs short- and long-term wildfire funding.

“The people of Montana also face a massive disaster,” he said in a statement. “Hundreds of thousands of acres burn, jeopardizing the livelihood of hard-working Montanans. Ash rains down on our homes and schools. Poor air quality threatens the health and well-being of Montanans, particularly our children and elderly.”

Oregon’s House delegation sent a bipartisan letter to House leadership Tuesday asking for emergency funds for fire suppression to be included in the Harvey emergency appropriations bill.

“It is likely the USFS will exhaust all funding for wildfire suppression within days,” they wrote. “Once that occurs, the agency is forced to borrow from other USFS accounts to pay for wildland fire suppression. Often the accounts that are depleted fund the very activities that help reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires, creating a vicious cycle.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said Wednesday that he was optimistic about getting those funds into the relief package in the upper chamber.

“It is completely unacceptable that we run out of firefighting money, which is what’s on the verge of happening,” Merkley told KATU. “So I’ve been reaching out to my Republican colleagues saying, ‘We need to act now. We have to make this part of the Harvey package,’ and I think we have at least a reasonable chance of making that happen.”

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., made a similar case in a letter to President Trump.

Beyond funding requests, the latest spate of destructive fires has ignited a debate over the factors contributing to their spread. Some point to increasingly arid weather conditions and climate change, while others allege that environmental policies intended to protect forests are ultimately endangering them.

“If we did have good forest management, we wouldn’t have as much of a fight like we do today,” Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., told KMPH Wednesday, “and I think we have a real opportunity to look at that today, and I think that hopefully some folks wake up.”hopefully some folks wake up.”

Other Republicans have pointed fingers more explicitly at activists and attorneys who have attempted to block logging and timber contracts, ostensibly to protect the environment and endangered species.

“A properly managed forest is also good for wildlife habitat, water quality, recreation, and minimizing the unspeakable amount of carbon emissions produced by wildfires,” Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said on the Senate floor this week. “We’re done listening to radical environmentalists when they tell us otherwise. Too many forest management projects have been held up in frivolous litigation at the expense of Montanans.”

Those so-called “radical environmentalists” have understandably bristled at such accusations.

“It’s classic scapegoating,” said Steve Kelly, a volunteer board member at the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “I think they’re trying to cover up their own failures.”

According to Kelly, politicians attacking groups like his are searching for excuses because they made impossible promises to prevent natural disasters to get elected.

“I’m not a psychologist, but people that blame other people for things that are naturally occurring events, maybe they should look at their own failings and try to take some responsibility for promises they’ve made that they haven’t been able to keep,” he said.

The debate over effective forest management has raged since the creation of the National Forest Service in the late 1800s. Kelly pointed to the beliefs of John Muir, who clashed with the first head of the Forest Service over fire suppression policy.

“I don’t think there’s anything but snow and rain that’s going to put that fire out,” Kelly said. “That’s how nature works, and we somehow have become disconnected from reality. The natural forces are so much more powerful than anything we can concoct. So in a way we’ve created this living fiction of man’s ability to affect the most dramatic natural events, which are all for a purpose.”

Loggers insist that professional timber harvesting will improve the health of forests and provide economic benefits for communities.

"As we've seen in some parts of the country, restoring forest health on federal lands has become enormously expensive and inefficient where loggers, log truckers and mill facilities have disappeared," American Loggers Council Executive Vice President Daniel Dructor said in a statement urging Congress to pass the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017.

"Taking action now, and working with the private sector, will enable the federal government to achieve its goal of increasing the pace and scale of forest management activities on federal land. Passing legislation now will allow federal agencies to get ahead of future fire seasons and lower the intensity of fires we're experiencing today," Dructor said.

Kelly scoffed at the notion that loggers are intent on defending the forests.

“That’s all for money,” he said. “It has nothing to do with healthy forests. That’s the biggest lie of all.”

Forest management experts say fire suppression strategies pursued by the Forest Service in recent decades to prevent burning have inadvertently created conditions that are now fueling fires.

“Many of the reasons for today’s mega-fires are human-caused including a century of aggressive fire suppression accompanied by discontinued active management of national forests, development near forests, and climate change,” said Paul Barnum, executive director of the Oregon Forest Resources Institute.

A lack of active management has resulted in unnaturally dense forests. Combined with hotter and dryer weather, that means fires burn faster and longer.

“I firmly believe that there is a place for active forest management and a win-win-win-win,” John Bailey, a professor of silviculture and fire management at Oregon State University, said. That includes fulfilling the need for timber-based products and logging jobs, but other factors as well.

Active and informed forest management can reduce the fuel in the landscape, but Bailey said more than a third of an area needs to be treated before it influences the flow of a fire. Since it is impossible to predict where an ignition will occur, it is difficult to know whether treating a specific area will prevent the spread of a fire.

“The probability that we treated some number of acres that would have been strategically placed right in front of the Eagle Creek Fire, that’s sort of a long shot,” he said.

The Forest Service’s options are limited by the demands of society, laws, and court rulings that sometimes offer conflicting directives.

“My message would be that yes the Forest Service needs to rethink what it does, but it can’t do anything different from what the people and the lawmakers direct them to do,” Bailey said.

In that regard, he suggested the public needs to accept the reality that a century of fire suppression has left record amounts of biomass on the ground, and when the weather gets hot and dry, it will burn.

“It’s kind of a debt that we’re just starting to pay off,” he said.

According to Kelly, there is evidence fires are becoming more intense and man-made climate change is one of several elements driving that.

“You get extended heat, dry conditions, wind and ignition and that’s it, you’re off to the races…. The long-term effects of climate change also are a factor, and it’s complicated,” he said.

What he described as “kneejerk reactions” from politicians demanding more resources to fight natural forces may lead the public to believe more can be done to stop fires than is realistic.

“If you can’t deliver, the answer is what?” Kelly asked. “More money, more rhetoric, more fire retardant. We haven’t put out many fires this year and we keep putting more money on it…. People are frustrated and they should be. These aren’t reasonable expectations.”

Kelly compared the problem to the one experienced by communities in areas known to be at high risk for floods and hurricanes.

“Don’t build your home in the middle of the forest if you don’t want it to burn down,” he said. “It will burn down.”

Local zoning and planning officials who allow development in areas that are at high risk for fires bear some responsibility, Kelly argued.

“I think we have to look at how we look at nature generally to get to the bottom of this…. We can’t influence it as much as we think, and we don’t create any of it.”

Experts diverge on the wisest forest management strategies and the role of for-profit logging and timber sales in curtailing fires, but they agree the impact of this summer’s blazes should open a conversation about the path forward.

“Given the changing nature of climate and the impact of past human actions, we need a new dialogue about what we as a society would like to see for the future of our forests,” Barnum said. “Attempting to fix blame will not solve our present problems or prepare us for the future.”


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