Ending the cycle of devastating wildfires

by Bruce Westerman ([email protected]) 555 views 

On Tuesday (June 20), I introduced the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017. The bill, originally introduced in 2015, has one overriding goal – to make our federal forests healthy again through sound science and management.

As highlighted by the fires across the southeast United States in 2016 and the west coast in 2015, our forests have been neglected for too long. I stated in a Natural Resources Committee hearing Thursday (June 22) that federal forests have become overgrown, disease and bug infested, fire-prone thickets partially due to no active forestry management, and unfortunately this year looks to be another challenging wildfire season.

It is reported that 58 million acres of national forest land are at high or very high risk of severe wildfire. These are the kind of severe wildfires cost our states, counties, and municipalities hundreds of millions of dollars to recover from, the kind of wildfires that threaten endangered species habitat, and the types of wildfires that can be better mitigated through sound forest science. In an October 2015 editorial I co-wrote with Democratic Congressman Kurt Schrader of Oregon, we noted the costs for homeowners who “face staggering losses that will likely soar into the billions. With fires continuing to grow, more homes and lives are at risk.”

What we said in 2015 is more true now than ever before.

“The current lack of preventative forest management action is proving catastrophic for our national forest system,” we wrote, adding that it was shortsighted and dangerous to not act.

This year, I am proud to again have the support of a bi-partisan group of legislators in Washington who understand the risk and the solution. For too long, politicians and bureaucrats were too afraid to address this problem head-on. But I believe we can pass a bi-partisan bill that will better allow the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to utilize tools to immediately reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire, insect and disease infestation and damage to state, municipal, and personal property.

Not only can we reduce the threats previously mentioned, but we can do it in a way that benefits rural economies, conservation groups, sportsmans groups, and even those families that wish to build homes.

I said in an editorial for Talk Business & Politics in July 2015 that we have a problem of not salvaging timber destroyed in catastrophic events, which makes the forests more dangerous for the next generation. This increases future wildfire problems and makes reforestation challenging. That has not changed during the last two catastrophic wildfire seasons across the United States. Just as it did in 2015, the latest version of the Resilient Federal Forests Act sets up requirements for salvage and reforestations plans in response to catastrophic events. It requires environmental assessments for salvage projects to be completed within 90 days so that timber can be removed while it is still commercially valuable.

With the Resilient Federal Forests Act supported by my friends in western states and both parties, I believe it will not only pass the House again, but it will cross the finish line in the Senate and be signed into law by the president.

A decision to do nothing is itself a management decision that will continue the cycle of devastating wildfires in our forests. It is time to end that cycle.
Editor’s note: U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, represents Arkansas’ 4th Congressional District. He also is a registered professional engineer and forester. Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of Talk Business & Politics.