A tale of two wildfire bills
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
Here are the
key provisions in each bill.
Walden: Resilient Federal Forests Act
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.
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
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.
would restore the yield to its original level, which
required no less than 500 million board feet of timber per
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
He also wants
to remove what he said was a temporary prohibition on
harvesting trees over 21 inches in diameter in Eastern
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
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.
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
government would pass grants to counties equal to 25% of
stewardship contract receipts on federal land in their
the measure as “something much asked for by communities and
something I hope we can get addressed.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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,
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.
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.
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 email@example.com or
541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.
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