Oregon lawmakers are looking at several bills that could change the way the state fights wildfires, and how it tries to prevent them.
The Legislature convenes in Salem on Monday.
The Oregonian/OregonLive reports that the plans under review include an effort to restore forest health through thinning, removing brush and small trees, and increasing prescribed burns. Over the next 20 years, supporters aim to do that work on 5.6 million acres of forest and rangelands — an area equivalent to the state of New Jersey, or nearly 10 percent of Oregon’s entire land base.
The proposals also call for expanding firefighting resources at the Oregon Department of Forestry, putting more boots on the ground and modernizing equipment to put fires out when they’re small, thereby keeping costs low. And they would add administrative staff to make sure the state is promptly invoicing and collecting its firefighting costs – a problem that drove the Department of Forestry to the brink of insolvency last fall.
These were among the recommendations from a task force that Gov. Kate Brown empaneled last year to look at the state’s wildfire preparedness.
Critics argue forest thinning projects are expensive, have a low probability of success, can be ecologically destructive to forests and can reduce the carbon stores in Oregon forests more than the fire themselves. Strengthening firefighting capabilities, meanwhile, is just doubling down on the strategy that created the problem in the first place, they say.
The governor’s 20-year forest treatment plan comes with a $4 billion price tag – $200 million a year. And almost all of the work would be on federal and private lands, raising the question of why Oregon taxpayers should pay for it.
Experts say the timber generated by thinning won’t come close to covering the costs to remove downed limbs and dead vegetation, particularly on east side forests and rangeland infested with less marketable trees like lodgepole pine, grand fir and juniper.
Meanwhile critics worry that fire prevention will be used as an excuse for backcountry clearcutting that will actually increase fire risks, reduce carbon stocks and have little impact on safety.