Last year, more than 45,000 wildfires torched over 4.8 million acres of wildland. In 2015, a record breaking 68,151 wildfires burned more than 10 million acres. Hundreds of homes and several lives have been lost.
For years, our national forests have been in trouble. There are tens of millions of dead or dying trees just waiting for a spark. Over the past 25 years, fires have grown in size and ferocity, while the firefighting budget has grown to more than 50 percent of the Forest Service’s entire budget. Funds for active land management programs such as fuels reduction, land restoration, and thinning/salvage projects, which could help diminish the devastation, have been severely limited. In addition, “obstructionist litigation” by environmental groups has also contributed to the dilemma.
Unfortunately, proposed legislation like the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015 (H.R. 2647), the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2015 (H.R. 167 and S. 235), and draft legislation called the Wildfire Budgeting, Response, and Forest Management Act are still gathering dust sitting on the shelf in various congressional committee rooms. Each one offers a bipartisan solution to end “fire borrowing” and pay for devastating mega-fires by tapping federal contingency funds, much like FEMA pays for hurricanes, floods, and tornados.
In addition, the legislation calls for streamlining the process by limiting the number of alternatives that need to be analyzed for actions such as fuel reduction projects, fuel and fire breaks, restoring forest health, and protecting municipal water supplies and wildlife habitat. It also calls for speeding up certain environmental reviews and limiting the constant threat of litigation from outside groups.
Radical Environmental Groups in a Tizzy
Radical environmental groups like the John Muir Project, Alliance of Wild Rockies, Friends of the Wild Swan, the Swan View Coalition, the Blue Mountain Biodiversity Project, and several others are not happy with any of the proposed the legislation.
They believe the draft bills are taking the wrong approach, and any wildfire-funding bill, which has an increase in fuels reduction activities, will benefit their arch nemesis “Evil Timber.” They believe the Forest Service should be focused on “reforming when, whether, where, and how we fight wildfire and what can be done to create fire adapted/fire permeable communities.”
These groups also believe any acceleration of the current review process and any limitation of litigation would rewrite and dismantle the National Environmental Policy Act.
The environmental groups’ lawyers, law firms, and benefactors are also concerned. Millions of dollars are paid each year in plaintiff attorney fees. Any change in the status quo promises to microwave their cash cow.
Let’s face it. There will always be fire. But the pretzel logic of environmental groups is no solution. We need to do more about saving our forests through active forest management by removing fuel loads, overly-crowded tree stands, and trees weakened by drought, insects, and disease.
Here’s How You Can Help
With the New Year beginning to roll out and a new administration taking control, the buzz from Capital Hill is that radical change is on the horizon. President Trump’s picks for Interior and Ag signal help is on the way.
Let’s hope this new direction can get congress off the dime to act on creating a solution to the wildfire-funding conundrum. Call, write, text, and/or email your representatives. Tell them to wake up and find a permanent fix to the funding problem. The future of our forests is at stake. Act now.
Speaking of Pretzel Logic
The Eugene-based Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE) is suing the U.S. Forest Service for breaking the law. (FSEEE is a non-governmental group made up of present, former, and retired Forest Service personnel on their board of directors.)
The lawsuit contends that the U.S. Forest Service took destructive emergency action in 2015 during Washington’s 65,000-acre Wolverine Fire in Chelan County, by building a 50-mile long, 30-foot wide firebreak to protect rural areas in the county. The suit states that the community protection line was “unnecessary, destructive, and violated the National Environmental Policy Act’s requirement to assess beforehand the impact of federal actions.”
The Forest Service used an administrative rule to declare an emergency and cut the line. Saying the firebreak was miles from the fire, the FSEEE blames Forest Service policy that gives incident commanders great latitude to proceed with emergency actions. The lawsuit argues the Forest Service adopted the rule without assessing its environmental impact.
Of course the lawsuit doesn’t take into account the fact that, in Chelan County alone, wildfire has devoured more than 330,000 acres since 2000. My guess is that nobody from FSEEE was onsite eating smoke and spitting hot embers when the decision was made. The people on the ground, working the fire and living in the communities that may have been threatened, made the decision to build the line. They didn’t have time to ask for permission.
What’s Burning Now!
At this writing, there are no significant wildfires burning. In the southeast, rain and snow conditions have helped mop up operations.
NOTE: Wildland firefighting training starts soon. (Source: InciWeb, Wire Service Reports)
That’s a wrap. Stay safe out there.
(Talkback – TWfirecolumn@gmail.com)
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