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CLEAN AIR: What is being done?

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The summer of 2017 saw some of the worst smoke in Southern Oregon in recent memory. The nation watched as its largest wildfire that season, the Chetco Bar fire, burned through the Kalmiopsis Wilderness to the coast, threatening homes from Cave Junction to Brookings. Music festivals and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival canceled or moved performances. By the end of fire season, 451,863 acres of Oregon land had burned.

This summer was no better. Jackson County logged the worst air in the nation three days in a row in late July as fires burned north, west and south of Medford. More than 311,399 acres have burned so far in southwestern Oregon and just over the border, with the largest four fires not yet fully contained.

Southern Oregon’s elected officials promised action in 2017. Nearly a year later, here’s what each has done since the end of last fire season.

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, Republican

Chairman, Committee on Energy and Commerce

2018 Farm Bill — Tens of millions of dollars earmarked for reducing wildfire risk on local forestland is being held up in conflicting House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill, sweeping legislation that covers everything from farming and food safety to trade, rural development and natural resources.

The House version championed by Walden would fund more logging, thinning, prescribed burning and salvage logging on local forests. But environmental advocates say the bill also would allow logging of up to nearly 10 square miles of forest at a time without safeguard reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Walden said he has to tell legislators from other parts of the country about the necessity of action to address wildfire.

“Back in Washington, they get rain. Here, we get thunderstorms in the summer,” Walden said. “They don’t understand that until you educate them.”

The current Farm Bill, passed in 2014, will expire Sunday after a House and Senate conference committee failed to reach a compromise. Walden said Friday he is “really disappointed” but is “still fighting for it.”

House Appropriation Omnibus: Walden pushed for several wildfire- and smoke-related provisions in this funding bill, including expansion of “Good Neighbor” policies to include forest road maintenance and culverts, allowing better access to wilderness fires, and lengthening the terms of stewardship contracts with the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. He also supported funding to end “wildfire borrowing” — diverting funds from preventive measures to cover costs of wildfire fighting. Those costs are now built into their budgets as natural disaster response.

This bill was signed into law in March.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, Democrat

Ranking member, Committee on Finance; member, Committee on Energy and Natural Resources

Wildfire “Refugee” Bill: Wyden introduced this bill Aug. 28, which would not combat the causes of smoke but seeks to deal with the impacts. The bill would provide funding for people to leave their homes during minimum three-day periods of continually unhealthy smoke, reimbursing them for lodging costs.

“It almost feels like if we don’t come up with some additional opportunities and strategies for dealing with his, we’re going to have clean air refugees and that’s just going to be a public health crisis,” he said during a visit to Medford a month before introducing the bill.

This bill has not advanced beyond its introduction to the Senate.

2018 Farm Bill: Wyden and fellow Sen. Jeff Merkley oppose the House version, which they say will spark excessive litigation. They support the Senate version, which would double funding for thinning operations to $80 million.

Senate Appropriation Omnibus: Wyden pushed hard for this bundled $1.3 trillion spending bill to include increased funding for the U.S. Forest Service and to end wildfire borrowing. Acting Forest Service Director Vicki Christiansen said the funding fix will “stabilize our operations for work on the ground and dramatically reduce the risk of fire transfer” by 2020.

This bill passed in March.

Department of Defense Appropriations Bill: Wyden and Merkley worked together to secure an additional $7 million for training the National Guard in wildfire fighting. How much would specifically be allocated to Oregon was not immediately available. Walden voted yes on the bill.

This bill was signed by President Trump on Friday.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, Democrat

Member: Appropriations and Environment and Public Works committees

Wildfire-Resilient Communities Act: Merkley on Wednesday introduced a new bill that would create a $1 billion fund to ramp up the Forest Service’s forest-thinning projects. It also would permanently establish a collaborative forest restoration program with multiple stakeholders involved. Merkley referred to the 2017 Milli fire, during which thinning was credited for saving houses in Sisters from destruction, as an example of the efficacy of the approach.

“This bill is all about saying that it’s way past time to do a lot more on the front end to make our forests fire-resilient,” Merkley said in a conference call with Oregon news media Wednesday.

Senate Appropriation Omnibus: Merkley also was involved in bringing about the provisions to end wildfire borrowing, but he said in March he thought the bill did not do enough to support forest-thinning efforts.

Sen. Ron Wyden
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden talks about his efforts to reduce wildfire impact on Southern Oregon.Thumbnail