As the menace of Western wildfires grows, Congress needs to take a long-term approach and address fires the same way as other federal disasters. Tragedy must not be used to advance bad laws.
OVER the summer, as fires blazed across the Methow and Okanogan valleys, the U.S. House passed an ill-considered, science-be-damned bill: the Resilient Federal Forests Act. The Orwellian title — there’s nothing resilient about it — signals the return of standard, old-school logging to combat the wildfire threat.
The House bill’s most offensive section waters down America’s landmark conservation law, the National Environmental Policy Act, blunting public comment and hastening environmental review. It’s an opportunistic remedy that doesn’t pass the smell test, and the Senate needs to douse it quickly.
For more than a generation, foresters have understood that standard logging compounds wildfires, with slash carrying fire and acres of stumps homogenizing the landscape. Forest health requires selective thinning, sustainable management and controlled burns. “We can’t cut our way out of this,” said Michael Medler, an environmental studies professor at Western Washington University.
Congress needs to single out the real obstacles. Priority one is ending the practice of “fire borrowing.” Year after year, the U.S. Forest Service is forced to dip into other programs once fire-suppression funds run dry. Ironically, initiatives that suffer the most are those designed to curtail fire risk, including hazardous-fuels removal.
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A wiser legislative solution is the bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which was introduced in January and is co-sponsored by Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore. The Crapo-Wyden bill, also supported by Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, would end fire borrowing and invest in science-based prevention. The shift rejiggers the budget to treat wildfires the same as any other federal disaster.
Even with prevention, wildfires will continue to menace the West, propelled by climate change and poor forest health. Lawmakers need to avoid shortcuts, adhere to good science, and embrace the dictum that when it comes to wildfires and the public interest, the best politics is no politics.