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Wildfire bill will invest in forest health

In case you missed it, May was Wildfire Awareness Month in Oregon. Continued preparation is warranted, but I would venture to say that Oregonians have a strong awareness of the effects of wildfire, having spent the better part of the past two summers blanketed by smoke.

Even areas not directly impacted by flames were inundated, putting the health of families, our recreation economy and crops at risk. These conditions reached a tragic apex elsewhere in the West last year, with the deaths of 85 people and the destruction of over 23,000 structures in California.

Oregon experienced its most expensive wildfire season in history in 2018, with more than 2,000 fires burning 900,000 acres of land. This trend isn’t changing either, as the National Interagency Fire Center has forecast an above-average wildfire season for the West Coast. So far the prediction has been correct, as Oregon has already experienced five major fires this year, all before the beginning of the traditional fire season.

Education and awareness about this new reality is important, but what we really need is action. We need serious investments in proactive science-based forest management like thinning and prescribed fire to reduce the risks of abnormal wildfire and protect our communities.

Unfortunately, we’re going in the wrong direction. Between 1998 and 2016, the number of Forest Service employees conducting work like timber management, thinning projects and trail maintenance decreased by 7,000. The result has been less resources for proactive forest management and a multi-million acre backlog of shovel-ready projects. Oregon alone has over 2 million acres of federal land that has already been approved for restoration, including fuels reduction and prescribed fire. But there simply aren’t enough staff and financial resources to get it done.

Fortunately, Oregon has leaders that recognize this crisis and have decided to step up.

On Wednesday, May 29, Sen. Jeff Merkley introduced the Wildfire-Resilient Communities Act, which would reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires for Oregonians and across the nation. It will improve forest health and create economic opportunities in forest-dependent communities by investing in collaboratively developed and environmentally sound forest restoration projects. The bill is bipartisan, practical and straightforward. It would create a $1 billion fund to provide desperately needed stability and allow the Forest Service to increase the pace and scale of wildfire reduction projects. It would also empower and provide more resources to federal agencies to work with local communities to plan and prepare for wildfires. This is a bill that works for rural and urban communities alike, and recognizes that this issue crosses geographic, social and political boundaries. It affects us all.

We commend Senator Merkley’s leadership to address this crisis, and we urge the rest of our leaders in Congress to join in response. Wildfire Awareness Month is behind us. It’s time to act.

Dylan Kruse is director of government affairs and program strategy for Sustainable Northwest.