Faster, more effective treatment of forests would result in better protected wildlife habitat, safer water and air quality, and greater recreational opportunities.
THIS summer’s wildfires destroyed roughly 1 million acres in Washington state. The loss, including the lives of the three young firefighters in Twisp, is overwhelming.
Few were hit harder than the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Eastern Washington. The tribe endured the worst wildfire ever to hit a forested area on tribal land in U.S. history. The Tunk Block and the North Star fires burned more than 250,000 acres of the Colville Reservation, nearly 20 percent of the tribe’s total land. The flames engulfed 15 homes, scorched tens of thousands of acres of range, timber, and cultural resources, and displaced thousands of cattle.
Major fire-suppression resources were tied up suppressing fires on undermanaged areas of nearby National Forest land, leaving the tribe with little protection.
It’s not new for tribes to be negatively impacted by management conditions on federal land.
Wildfires in 2002 and 2003 devastated tribal communities in the Western United States, but the tribes were forced to twiddle their thumbs because the fires started on neighboring federal lands.
To prevent future challenges tribal communities may endure, Congress passed the Tribal Forest Protection Act of 2004 (TFPA) to allow tribes to help improve forest health of nearby National Forests to protect their rights, lands and resources from wildfire threats.
Despite its best intentions, the law was barely implemented. Unfortunately, since 2004, only six projects were successfully implemented under the TFPA, affecting less than 0.01 percent of the land administered by the Forest Service. Unfortunately, two TFPA projects the Colville Tribe worked for years to implement with its neighboring National Forests were likely total losses.
When asked why they were so tentative to pursue TFPA projects, tribes note their lack of confidence in federal agencies actually implementing forest-health projects. On one TFPA project, a process that would normally take about three years on Forest Service land took more than 10 years.
The Colville Tribe would benefit from a reformed version of this legislation. Together — through regular meetings in Eastern Washington and Washington, D.C. — we have worked toward that goal.
Earlier this year the U.S. House passed H.R. 2647, the Resilient Federal Forests Act. This collaborative, bipartisan legislation would prioritize forest management as a preventive measure, and would cut red tape strangling America’s tribes and allow them to help manage adjacent forests.
It also would modernize the way we pay to fight catastrophic wildfires. The Federal Emergency Management Agency would cover additional costs, allowing Forest Service funds to be properly spent on forest management.
For years, the U.S. Forest Service has warned us that our forests are in terrible shape. We need to be aggressive and proactive in our approach to management of them if we have any hope of preventing future wildfires — concerns the service repeated again earlier this year, well before the fire season began.
Washington state tribes want to initiate an effort to help prevent wildfires, and the federal government should let them lead.”
Washington state tribes want to initiate an effort to help prevent wildfires, and the federal government should let them lead.
By speeding up the approval process, the Resilient Federal Forests Act would grant authority to tribes to treat the surrounding land like they do their own and to use their tools to maintain the health of forests. Faster, more effective treatment of forests would result in better protected wildlife habitat, safer water and air quality, and greater recreational opportunities.
If we do not learn and grow from these catastrophes, we will be having this same discussion next year.
It is irresponsible to ask our firefighters to put their lives on the line when we know there are ways we can proactively decrease catastrophic fires — measures that are being held up by outdated processes, systems and bureaucracies in Washington, D.C. Reducing the density of overstocked forests before fires strike requires new tools, such as those contained in the Resilient Federal Forests Act.
This legislation passed the U.S. House with bipartisan support and currently sits in the Senate awaiting further action. We are calling on our senators, particularly those from Washington state, to do all they can to assist this process and move this legislation through Congress.
Our tribes and communities are counting on it.