This summer, scenes of catastrophic wildfires in the West dominated the news. While wildfires are not new to those of us living in Western states, these recent fires have once more triggered important conversations about the federal government’s response to these disasters and its overall forest management strategy, or lack thereof.
When we think about the seven million acres of land that have burned across the United States in this last year alone, we are forced to ask ourselves one question: How did things get this bad? The answer is multi-faceted, but the root of the frequency and severity of these fires is decades of misguided forest mismanagement. After decades of little proactive management, overgrowth in our forests has forced trees to compete for limited water and nutrients, leaving them weak and more susceptible to insect and disease infestation. All the while, dead material and unnaturally thick undergrowth has built up, creating a tinderbox of volatile material that burns unnaturally hot and fast when ignited. It is no wonder wildfires are becoming deadlier and more destructive each year.
Instead of managing federal public forests, the U.S. Forest Service’s focus has been on fire suppression. In 2015, for the first time in its history, the U.S. Forest Service spent over one half of its budget combating wildfires. The following year, $3.2 billion of the U.S. Forest Service’s budget went to fire suppression. If the damage done and the dollars spent tell us anything, it’s that what we’re currently doing is not working. We cannot continue to be reactive.
I know that there is a better way, and fortunately so do my colleagues in the House, which is why this week we voted to pass H.R.2936, The Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017. This critical legislation, introduced by Congressman Bruce Westerman, will enact a proactive plan to protect our forests, property and American lives from catastrophic wildfires.
The Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017 will give the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management the necessary tools to immediately begin improving the health of federal forests. It will streamline management activity permitting processes, without sacrificing environmental protections, so that vital projects like removing dead wood and timber and reducing the spread of devastating insect infestations, can move forward more quickly.
The Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017 will also allow the Forest Service to preserve its budget for forest management, rather than having to shift those limited resources to cover the cost of catastrophic wildfire suppression. Under the bill, the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior will be able to submit requests to the President for an emergency declaration for wildfire on federal lands, meaning that dangerous wildfires will be treated like any other natural disaster and receive support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The bill will also engage local leaders and experts to work with federal land management agencies to prioritize forest management projects. When we look for solutions to solve any problem facing our lands and precious resources, we must always consider input from the affected communities and those who have a boots on the ground view of the situation. Language from my Healthy Forest Management and Wildfire Prevention Act (H.R. 695) was included in The Resilient Federal Forests Act to do just that by allowing governors to work with impacted county governments and Native American Tribes to designate high-risk areas and develop emergency hazardous fuels reduction projects for these endangered areas.
We will not be able to fix the product of decades of forest mismanagement overnight, but the passage of The Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017 is a big step in the right direction to reverse the trend toward proactive management, restored forest health and decreased catastrophic wildfires.