Millions of acres have burned in the West in recent years. Sonoma County experienced some of the worst of it in recent weeks. Congress might finally be ready to help, but Republicans cannot seem to pass meaningful reform without using it as a vehicle to roll back environmental protections.
In the West, where so much land is owned by the federal government, we are accustomed to misguided policies out of far-away Washington. Sometimes it must be hard for a representative from Massachusetts or a senator from Kansas to understand what it’s like to have the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management own so much land around you. We can easily hike and recreate, but we also are at tremendous risk when fire breaks out. And when fire does break out, a broken funding system means things can go sideways quickly.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has a reserve fund to help communities recover from hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes. If it runs low, Congress tops it off.
Wildfires are different, though. For them, the U.S. Forest Service has a specific and woefully inadequate budget. When that money runs out, as it has in recent years, the Forest Service must drain its other funding to keep fighting fires. That takes money away from prevention, research and planning to prevent future fires or at least lessen their impact.
The Trump administration would make matter worse. It proposed cutting $300 million from the Forest Service’s firefighting budget and $50 million from its wildfire prevention budget for 2018. That now seems unlikely after this summer’s blazes.
Western lawmakers have pushed for years to fix the funding system and ensure that adequate resources are available to prepare for and to fight fires. And for years nothing happened. When California’s Wine Country and Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge burn, however, lawmakers cannot easily ignore it.
On Wednesday, the House passed the Resilient Federal Forests Act sponsored by Rep. Bruce Westerman, a Republican from Arkansas. His bill would improve the funding situation for fires, but that is mostly an afterthought. The bill primarily would increase commercial logging on federal land and reduce environmental review in many cases so that timber companies can fire up their chainsaws more quickly.
That’s one way to fight fires. Fewer trees will mean less fuel. Those might be Arkansas values, but they aren’t Western values.
Meanwhile, Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, has introduced a better bill focused just on the funding problem. It has 81 cosponsors from both parties and overwhelmingly some from Western states who understand living with fire and being stewards of the environment. It is stuck in committee.
North Coast Reps. Jared Huffman and Mike Thompson voted no on Westerman’s bill. Rep. John Garamendi didn’t cast a vote but has opposed reducing environmental protections. All three are cosponsors of the Simpson bill, along with 22 other California representatives from both parties.
Congress can fix the wildfire funding problem without layering on controversial anti- environmental measures and sops to the timber industry. Logging can be part of successful forest management, but only if it’s done with environmental and strategic oversight. Lawmakers must remember that we hold national forests and other public lands in trust for future generations.