This is leadership?
With a summer of choking smoke still fresh in local residents’ minds, Gov. Kate Brown’s solution is to create a committee to study the state’s wildfire response. She’s allocated $400,000 for said study in her proposed budget that totals $83.5 billion. That’s billion with a B. If that news has smoke coming out of your ears, you’re not alone.
In her budget message, Brown says she will issue an executive order establishing something called the Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response: “The charge of the Council is to evaluate Oregon’s current system for responding to large fires, and determine whether or not the current model is sustainable. The Council will issue a report in September of 2019 to make recommendations for the future of Oregon’s wildfire response infrastructure.”
Anyone who spent the last summer in Southern Oregon can tell the governor, and anyone else who cares to ask, whether the current model is “sustainable.” We don’t need to wait until next September — when the 2019 fire season likely has burned tens of thousands more acres and cost hundreds of millions of dollars — to know that what is needed is not another study, but action.
Studies already have been done. Plans have been drawn up to begin the work of reducing the fuel loads in the region’s forests through targeted thinning and prescribed burning.
Granted, much of that work needs to be done on federal forestlands, and paying for it is not the state’s responsibility. But the most ambitious and, we think, most promising approach — the work proposed by the Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative — calls for treating not just federal forestlands but private timberlands as well. The group’s proposal will require significant money. The state could contribute grants to help offset the costs of thinning privately owned forests as well as fund work on state forestlands.
Instead, Brown’s proposed $400,000 would cover a new staff position and other costs associated with a study. Her budget also includes some money to create another position that would be charged with applying for Federal Emergency Management Agency grants in the wake of major fires.
Overall, the Oregon Department of Forestry’s fire budget would increase about 2 percent, enough to cover rising costs. That figure does not include emergency funds allocated to battle large fires, because that money is not part of ODF’s base budget.
The Governor’s Recommended Budget, as it’s known in Salem, is only a wish list. The Legislature is responsible for enacting the state budget, and what the governor wants often carries little weight.
We hope — and expect — our lawmakers to succeed where the governor has failed by providing strong leadership in assuring adequate resources are allocated for combating wildfires and smoke, and in pressuring Congress to appropriate the money needed to address forest health and wildfire resilience.
Southern Oregon’s economy is still suffering from canceled summer outdoor theater and music events, diminished tourism and the lingering health effects of breathing hazardous particulates. The governor’s answer to helping prevent more suffering is an embarrassment.
We endorsed no one for governor in the Nov. 6 election, saying neither Brown nor her Republican challenger had shown the leadership we think is needed. Brown just proved us right.