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A tale of two wildfire bills


Oregon’s elected officials in Congress aren’t waiting for fire season to put heat on their colleagues to address recurring smoky summers in the West.

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, are both pushing forest management legislation that they say will help mitigate wildfires and the smoke that repeatedly hits Southern Oregon especially hard.

Both bills seek to bolster thinning and hazardous fuels reduction, but their focuses differ. While Merkley’s bill addresses federal collaborative programs and would funnel more money to counties based on forest thinning contract receipts, Walden’s bill takes aim at environmental review processes that he says slow down thinning work and looks to expand salvage logging.

Here are the key provisions in each bill.

Walden: Resilient Federal Forests Act

The Resilient Federal Forests Act, which Walden introduced last week in the House, includes provisions he’s previously pushed that have been pared down or stripped out: salvage logging after fires and expanding categorical exclusions to expedite forest thinning proposals. Categorical exclusions allow projects to be exempted from lengthy reviews previously required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Last year, Walden’s provision to allow thinning projects of up to 6,000 acres without environmental review was stripped from the House version of the Farm Bill.

His new bill would up the ante, allowing a streamlined planning process for up to 10,000 acres to treat forest stands suffering from insects and disease and to reduce hazardous fuels and protect watersheds. For collaborative projects, the limit would expand to 30,000 acres.

His bill also would expedite salvage logging, where agencies including the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management remove dead and burned trees in the wake of fires.

It would also require 75% replanting of the area within five years after a fire.

Walden’s bill also looks at O&C lands, which is a checkerboard of Oregon and California Railroad revested lands running through 18 Western Oregon counties. The BLM oversees most of the more than 2.4 million acres of forest included in the O&C lands.

Walden wants to put more pressure on the BLM to harvest at least 500 million board feet of timber annually, as mandated by the O&C act, according to the news release.

Walden’s bill would restore the yield to its original level, which required no less than 500 million board feet of timber per year.

Aside from 25% of the receipts from those timber sales that is allocated to the Federal Treasury to administer the program, all the remaining money is supposed to be distributed among the 18 counties.

He also wants to remove what he said was a temporary prohibition on harvesting trees over 21 inches in diameter in Eastern Oregon.

Walden compared much of what he is pushing in the bill to what he said private and state landowners already do — in particular, salvage logging after a destructive event.

“We need to have that sense of urgency as well if we’re going to get ahead of the current fire curve,” he said.

Merkley: Wildfire-Resilient Communities Act

Merkley hopes to breathe new life into his Wildfire-Resilient Communities Act this year, after it stalled in the Senate in 2018. Like Walden’s, the bill would tackle wildfire mitigation and prevention from a variety of angles.

Introduced last fall, Merkley’s bill would allocate $1 billion to the Forest Service for ramping up projects that would reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire.

On a Thursday conference call with reporters, Merkley discussed the part of his bill that looks to pass money from forest thinning contracts on federal lands to counties in a new County Stewardship Fund.

The federal government would pass grants to counties equal to 25% of stewardship contract receipts on federal land in their boundaries.

He described the measure as “something much asked for by communities and something I hope we can get addressed.”

Merkley is seeking to protect and expand the U.S. Forest Service’s Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, which was created in 2009. Oregon is home to three such collaborations, including one in the Lakeview area.

The partnerships, which involve any combination of federal and state agencies as well as conservation groups, tribal leadership and other private partners, aim to use various ecological techniques to mitigate wildfire and encourage “ecological, economic and social sustainability,” according to the Forest Service.

Merkley, together with U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, pushed for the 2018 Farm Bill to reauthorize the program, which it did. But Merkley wants to see more.

“Those collaboratives bring together folks from across the spectrum ... and those plans for thinning the forests have pretty much stayed out of the courts, which is great,” Merkley said.

Merkley also provided an update in the call on a $7 million federal allocation to the Oregon National Guard last summer to train citizen soldiers to fight wildfires. He said that 230 Oregon National Guard members were trained in March and another 125 will be trained in July.

Beyond the bills

Logging and fuel reduction alone won’t be enough to fix the pace and severity of wildfires, the Ashland-based Geos Institute said in an open letter to Congress and other decision-makers last summer signed by more than 200 scientists, professors and others.

The letter said thinning is ineffective and could even exacerbate large-scale fires during “extreme fire weather,” a combination of high winds and temperatures, low humidity and dry forests. It called for discouraging residential growth into forested areas, protecting existing homes by making them as fire-resistant as possible, and creating a comprehensive response to climate change based on clean, renewable energy.

“Management can either increase or decrease flammable vegetation, is effective or ineffective in dampening fire effects depending on many factors, especially fire weather, and has significant limitations and substantial ecological tradeoff,” the letter read.

Dr. George Wuerthner, who is among the scientists who signed the letter, said in a written statement that rising temperatures in the West and loss of snowpack — both directly related to emissions — contribute to the force and frequency of fires.

“While long-term, we must address human-caused warming climate which includes (greenhouse gas) emissions from logging/thinning if we wish to avoid even greater conflagrations,” he said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.



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