For Immediate Release

Walden Earth Day Op-Ed


Earth Day Op-Ed

Congressman Greg Walden

April 21, 2004

The observance of Earth Day is an important reminder of the value we place on protecting our environment and ensuring the long-term health of our planet. As such, it is a fitting occasion to reflect on the progress we’ve made toward a healthier environment, as well as the stewardship challenges that we continue to confront.

Perhaps no phenomenon has been more destructive of Oregon’s forests, watersheds and critical species habitat than the catastrophic wildfires that have decimated our state in recent years. Just one year ago Oregon was reeling from the most destructive fire season our state had suffered in half a century. From the Biscuit Fire in southern Oregon to the Cache Mountain Fire in central Oregon, more than a million acres were scorched – an area larger than Rhode Island. All around the state lives were threatened, rural communities were endangered, watersheds and species habitat were wiped out, air sheds were clouded with smoke and green forests turned black.

The causes of these fires aren’t complicated. A century of fire suppression coupled with a near abandonment of responsible thinning practices in our forests has resulted in unnatural catastrophic fires in the West and across much of the United States.  The build-up of hazardous fuels has produced fires that ignite faster, burn hotter and spread more quickly than anything we’ve ever seen. And more often than not, when federal land managers attempt to thin overstocked forests, their efforts are met with legal appeals and injunctions by those who oppose any and all human activity on public lands, no matter how well intentioned.

As this environmental calamity worsened, President George W. Bush did not stand idly by. He worked in the spirit of bipartisanship with the nation’s governors and congressional delegations to identify areas where compromise was possible and solutions could be found. In August of 2002 President Bush brought many participants in the debate over forest health to Oregon, where he launched the Healthy Forests Initiative, a comprehensive plan for restoring our forests and protecting rural communities from the danger of wildfires. His return to Oregon in August 2003 to highlight forest health coincided with the outbreak of the B & B Fire in central Oregon. Joining the President in his tour of fire-ravaged forestlands, I saw in his eyes the heartbreak that every Oregonian feels when gazing upon the charred remnants of once pristine forests.

I was proud to have co-authored the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, an integral component of the Healthy Forests Initiative, and to work closely with my Oregon colleague, Sen. Ron Wyden, to shepherd its passage through Congress. While we had our policy disagreements, Sen. Wyden and I looked for common ground and ultimately produced a bill that passed by wide, bipartisan margins in both the House and Senate, receiving support from virtually every West Coast lawmaker.

The Healthy Forests Restoration Act authorizes expedited hazardous fuels reduction projects and other conservation initiatives on 20 million acres of public land. Aimed at preventing catastrophic wildfires, insect infestation and disease, the bill is designed to free the hands of our federal land managers who are so often prevented from doing the work that they are trained to do to sustain forest health.

While a handful of members of Congress continued to oppose the Healthy Forests bill, what was notable was the lack of any substantive alternative. The bill’s opponents seemed to prefer doing nothing to improve forest health than doing something. Not only did Senator John Kerry fail to show up for the Senate vote on the Healthy Forests bill, he vilified the legislation that had been crafted in such a bipartisan spirit. On the day of its enactment, Kerry said that the bill, "takes a chainsaw to public forests in the name of protecting them." Fortunately, most of Kerry’s Democratic colleagues chose to put such baseless rhetoric aside and support the bill. As the presidential campaign heats up and Sen. Kerry launches a predictable attack on President Bush’s environmental record, it will be worth remembering which candidate worked in the spirit of bipartisanship to protect our forests and which did not.

A century of mismanagement of our forests has produced effects that will not disappear overnight despite our best efforts. Indeed, our progress in restoring forest health will likely be measured in decades, not years. Nevertheless, it is essential that we not falter in our collective resolution to protect our forests from destruction. That means moving forward with the same commitment to bipartisanship that produced this rare victory in the first place. I recently assumed the chairmanship of the Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, and I intend to use this role toward that end.

Already this year my colleagues and I are working to expedite the benefits contained in the Healthy Forests bill. I have brought high-level federal officials to central, southern and eastern Oregon to help communities craft Community Fire Plans as outlined in the measure, and I am encouraging the involvement of citizens of all political persuasions in the formulation of our forest policies. We’re also focusing on the treatment of forests in the wake of wildfires, as well as offering tools to Native American tribes to combat wildfires that jump from federal to tribal lands. In these efforts, I have been heartened by the steadfast support we have received from the Bush White House, which has been an invaluable ally in the fight to restore health to our most precious natural resources.

As Oregonians observe Earth Day this year, it is my hope that they will be mindful of the leadership demonstrated by President Bush and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle who put partisanship aside for the benefit of our forests. And while the nature of American politics may prevent the truth of this extraordinary accomplishment from being widely appreciated, I am certain that future generations will salute those who stood with the President to protect our environment and safeguard our rural communities.

Congressman Walden represents the Second Congressional District of Oregon, which includes 20 counties in southern, central and eastern Oregon. He is a Deputy Whip and a member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce as well as the Committee on Resources. Walden was recently named Chairman of the Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health.