Guest Opinion: $1 billion for fuel reduction

In August, I drove around Southern Oregon under a neon pink sphere glowing through a gray film. The mountain ranges were invisible. The air was barely breathable.

Smoke from massive wildfires had transformed Southern Oregon’s big, blue skies and fresh country air into a heavy, toxic fog.

Thousands of Oregonians had already been suffering for weeks in some of the worst quality air in the world.

The hazardous air is harmful to healthy people, let alone those with respiratory issues. It has caused cancellations of outdoor performances for music and theater. It has upset the entire outdoor recreation economy that draws thousands of visitors to the region during the summer.

And I know that this year’s suffering from devastating wildfires comes on top of last year’s.

We cannot allow this to become the new normal. That’s why I’ve used my seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee to address short-term fixes, like training and deploying Oregon National Guard members to fight fires, and long-term fixes, like ending fire borrowing and funding successful forest management programs.

But we can’t stop at better firefighting — we need better forests. That’s why I just introduced new legislation that would reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires, while also creating jobs and opportunities in communities that have large tracts of forestland.

The Wildfire-Resilient Communities Act would create a $1 billion fund to allow the Forest Service to continuously implement catastrophic wildfire reduction projects. Already in Oregon, we have

1.6 million acres of forestland that have gone through the environmental review process and are ready for fuels reduction, but the Forest Service lacks both the funding and boots on the ground to implement these badly needed projects. This fund would ensure that once fuels reduction projects are approved, the agency has the resources to ensure that this work can actually happen in a timely manner.

The bill would also expand the number of mechanisms for the Secretary of Agriculture and Secretary of Interior to work with at-risk communities to plan and prepare for wildfires, emphasizing fuels reduction projects in a wider array of landscapes to create more defensible space for homeowners and facilitate fire response.

And the bill would reauthorize and expand the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, allowing more projects to receive funding in a given fiscal year. The bill permanently reauthorizes the program for up to $100 million, and doubles the number of projects that can be funded each year to 20.

The Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP) helps fund collaborative and community-based forest management, which, if expanded, could include the Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative. It has a proven track record of improving forest health, reducing wildfire risk, and supporting rural communities. Collaboration is a key component in increasing the pace and scale of projects that reduce the risk of catastrophic fires.

I have seen first-hand how effective the CFLRP program is. Last year in Deschutes County, the forested area managed by the Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project — composed of local groups representing environmental, logging and recreational interests — stopped the Milli Fire outside of Sisters in its tracks. Sparked by a lighting strike, the fire burned 24,000 acres and threatened communities in the Deschutes National Forest region. When I visited after the fire, the untreated, dense forest on one side of the road was devastated, while the thinned, treated forest on the other side was lightly burned and still healthy.

My Wildfire-Resilient Communities Act invests in the practical, proven forest management methods that will make our forests more resilient to catastrophic wildfire. Other approaches, such as the forestry provisions in the U.S. House of Representatives’ version of the Farm Bill, would allow massive clearcuts with little or no environmental review, while gutting important Endangered Species Act protections. That is a divisive, extreme approach to forest management that would only harm our economy and our communities. Instead, we need to come together and invest in proven methods that make our forests healthier and our communities safer.

I know how desperate Oregonians are to find a real solution to the longer, more intense wildfire season. I am using every tool available to me — my seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, the upcoming Farm Bill reauthorization, this new legislation — to help address this urgent issue.

Oregonians have been resolute: We refuse to allow summers of raging wildfires and dense smoke to become the new normal. Now is the time to fight for the resources we need to make our communities safer, our economies stronger, and our forests more resilient.

Sen. Jeff Merkley represents Oregon in the U.S. Senate.

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