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River Democracy Act would hurt, not help fire prevention

EDITOR’S NOTE: This opinion provides an opposing point of view to the guest opinion printed last Sunday.

The Biden administration recently announced a 10-year strategy aimed at reducing the risks of large and unnaturally severe wildfires throughout the West. Thanks to the bipartisan infrastructure bill the president signed last year, the strategy would make historic investments in forest and vegetation management on fire-prone federal lands.

This strategy, however, could be undermined in Oregon if Sen. Ron Wyden’s “River Democracy Act” was signed into law.

Unlike President Biden’s wildfire plan — which relies on science, agency expertise and data to prioritize treatment areas — Wyden’s plan relies on adding 3 million acres of federal land to the Wild and Scenic Rivers system and hoping these areas don’t burn like the iconic Umpqua, McKenzie and Santiam watersheds that were scorched in the 2020 Labor Day fires.

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was originally established to preserve certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition. It was never intended — and has never been used — to be a fire prevention and community protection law. Yet, the bill’s sponsor continues to tell the public and press that adding millions of acres of gulches, draws and unnamed tributaries to the Wild and Scenic Rivers system will “fireproof” our rivers. That assertion is detached from practice and experience.

Currently there are no examples where needed fire prevention work is being done in Oregon’s existing Wild and Scenic corridors. In fact, Wyden helped designate 250 miles of Wild and Scenic rivers in 2019. None of those corridors received any fire mitigation treatments or actions in the last three years.

President Biden’s 10-year wildfire strategy is aggressive in setting out specific goals. It calls for treating 20 million acres of at-risk national forest lands, including significant work in southwest Oregon. It also calls for treating up to an additional 30 million acres of other federal, state, tribal and private lands, and developing a plan for long-term maintenance of our at-risk forests beyond the first 10 years.

If the River Democracy Act is passed, federal agencies will still be working to complete the “Comprehensive River Management Plans” required by the legislation for at least the first 10 years.

Consider, for example, that it took the U.S. Forest Service six years to complete a single river management plan for 50 miles of the Wild and Scenic Elk River on the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest. The river plan is 228 pages long. What would the River Democracy Act paperwork exercise cost the agency in time and resources for 4,700 miles of new Wild and Scenic River designations impacting 3 million acres? As the agencies scramble to produce thousands of pages of planning documents, Oregon’s at-risk forests and river corridors will continue to burn.

The bill’s sponsors seem to recognize these implications, which is why they added language directing land agencies to “assess” fire risks in these river corridors and to develop fire management plans to guide federal actions once fires are burning. Yet the bill includes no language directing that fuels reduction and other fire prevention activities are actually implemented. So far, no maps from federal land agencies have been released to allow Oregonians to assess how the River Democracy Act would affect land management on these 3 million acres, and the agencies have yet to indicate how the bill’s provisions would be carried out.

All Oregonians share an interest in conserving Oregon’s rivers and water resources. But preservation is not conservation, and a feel-good bill aimed at “protecting” Oregon’s rivers will have dramatic unintended consequences as Oregon’s wildfire seasons become longer and more severe. Considering the urgency of the state’s wildfire crisis, Wyden and other members of Oregon’s congressional delegation should focus on implementing the Biden administration’s plan, rather than trying to pass a bill that will significantly limit this work.

Blair Moody of Medford is a fellow and a presidential field forester in the Society of American Foresters.