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Farm bill fell short for Southern Oregon

When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters. Those are the words of a father from Southern Oregon, whose family was torn apart by the all-too-common threat facing our communities every summer: wildfire smoke.

In this very paper on Dec. 12, this father is quoted as saying, “It’s been devastating for us as a family. We wish our daughter could live with us.?”

His daughter suffers from cystic fibrosis, a lung disease that is exacerbated by the choking smoke and particulate matter that fills the skies of the Rogue Valley year after year. And we all know he’s not alone.

When you hear those words from a father, who was pleading for something to happen to address the wildfires that have driven his daughter away, it makes me double down on finding solutions and changing federal laws so we can save our forests and communities from fire and destruction.

That’s why I worked so hard to pass legislation in the House to allow expedited fuel reduction projects in southern Oregon forests like are allowed in Central and Eastern Oregon. And it’s why I’ve long advocated for cleaning up after fires and planting new forest for the next generation. Unfortunately, the work of the House got torched by Senate Democrats.

Even more surprisingly, after months of pleading for Congress to change the law and aggressively improve the health of our forests and safety of our communities, the editorial board chose to retreat, giving opponents a pass; regurgitating their arguments that somehow giving Southern Oregon forest managers expanded authority to reduce fuel loads before and after fires might result in more environmental lawsuits. Really? It’s precisely this attitude that ties our hands and leaves us choking on smoke and fearing fatal fires all summer long.

I do agree, though, that we need to provide additional funds for hazardous fuels reduction work. That’s why I’ve voted to increase funding for these common-sense forest management projects every year for the last five years. We’ve provided $2.7 billion over this time period so our professional forest managers can do their work to reduce the threat of wildfire and create healthy forests.

The Forest Service has told me how 75 percent of their project costs come from planning. The expedited tools we proposed in the House would have simplified that and helped the money go even further on the ground. Provisions in the House bill would have ensured we could maximize the money that comes to Southern Oregon, as they have done effectively on other forests across the country. How sad the Senate refused to go along.

And I also applaud the work of Oregon’s forest collaboratives and know the great effort they make to conduct responsible stewardship of our lands. It was my legislation that created these Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration projects in the first place in 2009.

We should encourage this collaborative work. That’s why in addition to extending the program, the House bill gave collaborative forest projects special tools to promptly implement agreed upon fire prevention work.

As I said on the House floor, the farm bill was a pretty good bill and made important progress in the way that we manage our forests. But, when we’re losing towns, and people, and firefighters, and our communities are choked with smoke, we should have done better.

A Medford resident put the reality in Southern Oregon in stark terms to me recently. He said that if something doesn’t change to reduce catastrophic wildfires, “We’re gonna get killed.”

If people are serious about saving our forests from destruction, then it’s long past time to fix the law, not make excuses for those who file lawsuits and refuse to support real change. Our communities deserve better.

Rep. Greg Walden represents the 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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