A recent study by Climate Central found wildfires in the Western United States are undermining progress in reducing air pollution from tailpipes and industrial sources. In analyzing air quality in two large California air basins, the independent research organization found the level of harmful particulate matter in the air consistently exceeded federal standards during the peak wildfire fire season. In the Rogue Valley, residents endured weeks of poor air quality as the Chetco Bar fire and other forest fires raged through the summer.
Forest fires contain particulate matter that is linked to health problems such as asthma, heart disease and even premature birth — health effects significantly associated with poverty and income equality. According to the Centers for Disease Control, wildfire smoke is associated with increased emergency department visits and hospital stays for Americans suffering from breathing and heart problems.
Catastrophic wildfire is not typically viewed as a public health concern, but this latest research should give Congress another reason to act. Climate change is often blamed for today’s megafires. And while there are varying opinions among lawmakers about the exact relationship between global climate change and wildfires in the U.S., there is bipartisan consensus that we should take immediate action to reduce the fuel loads that have built up in our forests that are indisputably contributing to the size, severity, and cost of massive fires.
America’s federally owned forests are overstocked, impacted by insect infestations and vulnerable to unnaturally severe wildfire. More than 80 million acres of national forest are at risk of severe wildfire, yet last year the U.S. Forest Service treated about 200,000 acres. Federal land managers can’t catch up to our nation’s massive backlog because it typically takes up to four years for agencies to develop and implement projects that promote forest health and resiliency through commercial thinning and prescribed fire.
On Nov. 1, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the Resilient Federal Forests Act (HR 2936) that reduces the cost and time of preventative forest health projects on at-risk forests and watersheds. It also allows the Forest Service to access emergency funds when its wildfire suppression budget is exhausted. The bill seeks to safeguard our drinking water supplies from the impacts of fire and erosion, encourages the removal of dead trees after wildfires, protects public safety, restores recreational amenities while creating new revenue to replant and rehabilitate burned forests.
The Resilient Federal Forests Act promotes wildlife habitat enhancement projects and incentivizes projects developed by local collaboratives, usually consisting of conservationists, timber industry and local elected officials. And it provides alternatives to costly and obstructive litigation that commonly ties up forest projects for years in court. Despite the claims of special interest groups favoring the status quo, the Resilient Federal Forests Act doesn’t repeal existing forest plans and federal environmental laws.
With this vote the U.S. House has now passed comprehensive federal forest reforms for the fifth year in a row. Yet after countless committee hearings and years of deliberation, the U.S. Senate has yet to pass a wildfire funding solution or reforms that meaningfully increase the pace and scale of management activities on federal forest lands.
There is some agreement in the Senate on the need to streamline federal regulatory procedures for forestry projects. Like HR 2936, both the Wildfire Prevention and Mitigation Act and the Wildland Fires Act — legislation introduced by Democratic and Republican senators — give the federal land agencies new efficiencies under the National Environmental Policy Act to expedite forest health projects.
Let’s hope the U.S. Senate doesn’t miss another opportunity to find compromise and pass solutions that improve the health of our federal forests, mitigate the impacts of climate change, and influence the size and severity of fires. Congress can treat both the symptoms and causes of catastrophic wildfire by increasing the pace and scale of active forest management. Taking action will also benefit public health by reducing exposure to wildfire smoke and pollution for millions of Americans.
— Nick Smith is executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, a timber industry group, on the web at HealthyForests.org.