As I write this article, wildfires have once again covered much of Montana in a thick layer of unhealthy smoke. There are 25 active fires burning 250,000 acres from Hardin to Troy. Even if you don’t see the flames, the smoke and poor visibility is hard to ignore. Yet, ignoring the issue and letting politics get in the way of action is exactly the problem in Washington, DC.
Last year, fires across the west burned a record 10+ million acres and nearly 18,000 structures. The cost to taxpayers was in the billions and the loss of life and habitat tragic. Unfortunately, we are on track to surpass that grim marker in 2021. The Forest Service estimates a backlog of 80M acres of unhealthy forest in need of restoration and 63M acres have a dangerously high fire risk. When Department of Interior lands are added to the mix, the scale of forest mismanagement from years of neglect is staggering.
There is little doubt that the fire season is longer and drought conditions and elevated temperatures have created a perfect storm. Everyone should agree that the federal government can – and must – do more to restore the health of our forests to be more resilient against catastrophic wildfires, regardless of where they fall on the issue of climate change. For climate change advocates, the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere by fires cannot be ignored. Dryer and hotter conditions should encourage active management rather than offer an excuse for the destruction of habitat and waste of renewable resources. The good news is, there are common sense solutions that can be quickly enacted if Congress had the resolve and leadership to get it done.
Yes, under the previous Administration, Republicans and Democrats came together to pass the “wildfire funding fix” which treated wildfires like other natural disasters, allocated more money for suppression, and provided more resources toward wildfire fighting and response. Addressing the cost of fighting fires was helpful, but the real solution is using best science and better management to help prevent wildfires in the first place.
Congress has the power to fix this problem and restore our federal forests to health and resiliency by taking immediate steps:
Be a good partner: Large-scale forest restoration projects are lengthy and expensive, but the Federal government is under strict rules about how long their contracts can be. Lengthening the time the feds can partner on forest projects provides more certainty and increases the likelihood of investment and improved forest health.
Adhere to science-driven sustainable timber yields: Study after study has determined sustainable timber yields that promote healthy forests yet lawsuit after lawsuit by radical environmental groups have prevented or delayed harvest, salvage operations, and restoration projects. The result has been overgrown forests, a waste of renewable resources, and greater risk to property and life.
Prioritize prescribed burns: Fire is a natural part of the ecosystem and some of the earliest Native Americans used prescribed burns to manage the range and forests. Federal law should prioritize late season prescribed burns as a management tool to clear the dense underbrush and dead and dying timber on the forest floors by granting categorical exclusions and omitting prescribed burns from state Clean Air Act compliance. History has proven the catastrophic wildfires that occur on overgrown and unhealthy forests release more carbon, destroy more critical habitat, and do more damage to watersheds than tightly controlled burns.
Lift the export ban: Outdated policy from the 1970s made it illegal to export timber from federal lands. However the world is a different place now. Our forests are unhealthy, milling capacity plummeted, and timber prices are through the roof. Authorizing the export from federal lands would create an incentive for State, Tribal and private entities to partner with federal forests.
Promote biomass: Healthy trees are resilient trees, but dead, diseased and defective logs create a tinderbox. There is little use for this material however it is perfect for biomass. Promoting biomass as the viable, cost-effective and renewable source of energy it is would create a market for what is currently a dangerous hazard.
Coupled with best forest management practices like species diversification, clearing transmission rights of way, and targeted thinning, these bipartisan policies could greatly improve the health of our federal forests and prevent smoke filled summers.
Radical environmentalists would have you believe forest management means clear cutting forests and national parks. But their rhetoric could not be further from the truth. They make outdated and unscientific arguments, void of facts, because they cannot defend the merits of their policy preferences year after year as our forests and homes burn to the ground. Anyone who says managing, saving and restoring forests is not conservation is either knowingly lying or doesn’t understand the issue.
We’ve seen too much destruction and loss of life to keep doing nothing. The hotter and drier climate mixed with decades of neglect of federal forests has created a lethal situation in Montana and across the west. We need science-driven solutions that restore health to our dead and dying forests. We could use less politics and more leadership in Washington, DC.