Oregon scorched by summer wildfires

Forestry management debate heats up in Washington

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Lane County experienced an unprecedented amount of smoke this summer from wildfires. With particulate matter in the air reaching more than 300 parts per million during the past two months, Eugene has had its most hazardous levels of air pollution since 1991, according to a report by the Lane Regional Air Protection Agency.

Oregon legislators are calling for national forestry reform to aid in the prevention of future fires. Eight million acres were charred by forest fires in the United States this year, 50 percent more land affected than the yearly average, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. More than $2 billion was spent this budget year on fire suppression — a new record in the United States, according to a report by the US Forest Service.

Oregon Representative Greg Walden is one of the legislators putting his support behind the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017, a bill which would hasten salvage logging projects and other controversial fire suppression techniques. Critics of the bill say that this approach will weaken environmental reviews of proposed timber operations and could potentially allow priceless ecological systems to be degraded.

“The intent of this [bill] is to allow input from the community, so all voices are heard, but to reduce the frivolous lawsuits from environmental extremists,” Montana Representative Greg Gianforte, who is co-sponsoring the bill, stated to the Daily Inter Lake. “We have over a billion standing dead trees in Montana. Some of them have commercial value. They certainly have the potential to start another fire.”

Proponents of the legislation believe that it will help to prevent forest fires by allowing forestry services to bypass some of the stringent environmental regulations on thinning U.S. forests, and in turn, will reduce wildfires and their costs while revitalizing the logging industry.

Walden isn’t the only Oregon legislator pushing for wildfire management reform. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, along with a bipartisan group of congressmen are supporting a bill intended to end the practice of “fire-borrowing,” or the emptying of wildfire prevention funds to pay for the cost of fighting wildfires. The bill, The Wildfire Disaster Funding Relief Act, intends to do this by allowing the Federal Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service to take money from the federal disaster funds when the cost of wildland firefighting exceeds the 10-year national average.

By protecting the budgets of the USFS and BLM, the legislators hope to aid in their wildland fire prevention efforts, rather than suppression, which could potentially save the federal government money. It would also keep in place the environmental regulations designed to protect ecologically valuable areas.

Lane Community College professor and executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, Dr. Tim Ingalsbee doesn’t believe that either of these bills are viable solutions to the problems posed, financial and otherwise, by the escalating wildfire seasons on the West Coast. He instead suggests that the entire paradigm of fighting fire must be shifted, emphasizing its essential role in the ecology of forests.

“There are two things that are predictable every summer, wildfires are going to start somewhere, and opportunists in Congress and the timber industry that they represent, are going to try to increase commercial logging on public lands,” Ingalsbee said.

The size and frequency of these wildland fires, according to Ingalsbee, will only increase due to our planet’s changing climate and rather than spending billions of taxpayer dollars to fight them, we must instead place our energy into adapting to the changing environment and its effects on the ecosystem and our society.

At press time, neither of these bills have been scheduled for a vote. For more information about the legislation, one can visit the U.S. Congress website linked below.