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Smoke: Collaboration, not conflagration

Just when it seemed the smoke was finished with us, it rolled back in Friday, forcing football games to be rescheduled. It was yet another reminder of the toll wildfire smoke has taken on the Rogue Valley this year.

We promised you we would stay on this issue, following elected officials’ efforts to address it and holding them accountable. In today’s paper, Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay details what our representatives in Congress have done since the end of last year’s fire season. Much of it is positive, some of it is of questionable value, and some of it perpetuates the battle between the timber industry that wants far more logging and environmentalists who want none at all.

Sen. Ron Wyden was instrumental in pushing through an end to the nonsensical “fire borrowing” that forced the Forest Service to divert money intended for fire prevention to cover the costs of fighting fires. That was a long-overdue fix. Together with Sen. Jeff Merkley, Wyden worked to allocate $7 million to train National Guard troops to fight fires when needed. That’s a prudent move, but it’s focused on fighting fires, not preventing them or making them less severe.

Wyden has introduced a bill to pay for emergency lodging of people forced to leave the area because of extended smoke events. That strikes us as well-intentioned but very hard to implement, requiring too much bureaucratic oversight to make sure those applying for reimbursement weren’t trying to snag a beach getaway courtesy of the government. Better to apply the same money toward concrete steps to lessen fire severity and reduce smoke in the first place.

Rep. Greg Walden supported the fire borrowing fix in the House, and pushed to include measures in the House Appropriations Omnibus to increase forest road maintenance and access to wilderness fires — again, reasonable steps, but focusing on fighting fires after they start. Walden also wants potentially divisive measures in the House version of the Farm Bill that would dramatically ramp up logging.

The House and Senate versions of the bill are at odds, and lawmakers will attempt to come to agreement in the lame-duck session after the Nov. 6 election. Pushing timber industry-backed increases in logging is likely to prompt lawsuits from logging opponents, delaying any progress on the ground while the courts consider the matter. A better approach would be to back subsidized thinning projects that could include some commercial logging but are primarily focused on forest health, not industry profits.

Sen. Jeff Merkley last week introduced a bill to create a $1 billion fund to support thinning and establish a permanent collaborative forest restoration program. Merkley details this proposal in a guest opinion today. This is the most promising step so far, but it remains to be seen whether it will gain enough support to advance.

Oregon’s entire congressional delegation and state and local officials should get behind the collaborative approach to fuel reduction.

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