Wyden bill would put billions into wildfire fuels reduction
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden introduced a multi-billion dollar bill Monday to reduce wildfire fuels, protect people from smoke and help rural communities that have been hard hit by the COVID-19 crisis.
“A historic global pandemic that’s still raging at the start of wildfire season adds up to a prescription for major problems in the months ahead to public health and rural jobs in Oregon and nationwide,” said Wyden, D-Ore.
His 21st Century Conservation Corps for Our Health and Our Jobs Act would provide an additional $5.5 billion to the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management to increase hazardous fuels reduction and thinning efforts. Projects that are shovel-ready and environmentally reviewed would be prioritized.
Wyden said thinning projects that include logging of commercially valuable trees could be part of the work if they comply with environmental laws.
Thinning projects generally focus on brush and small-diameter trees while leaving behind large, fire-resilient trees. They typically cost more to carry out than they can generate in revenue, requiring government subsidies.
Jackson County Commissioner Colleen Roberts is among those who have called for more active logging in local forests.
“We are always delighted when our federal representatives are concerned about the huge fuel load that exists in our mismanaged forests. Necessary funding and resources are a critical part of the management capabilities,” she said of Wyden’s proposed bill.
Roberts said the funding will complement and fulfill a previous executive order by President Donald Trump for more forest management to reduce fuel loads in forests.
Wyden’s bill would also create a $9 billion fund to train and hire people to restore watersheds and public lands, plus another $6 billion to put people to work tackling projects and a maintenance backlog on Forest Service lands.
“As Southern Oregon continues to grapple with the frequency and severity of wildfire, there is an urgent need to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration across watersheds,” said Marko Bey, executive director of Lomakatsi Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization that thins local forests and restores watersheds.
Bey said the funding would create workforce training and job opportunities for youths and adults in the Rogue Basin and beyond, all while stimulating local economies.
“This funding is a win-win for people and nature, and is essential for making our communities safer from wildfire risks that will only continue to grow,” he said.
The bill would also create a $7 billion relief fund to help outfitters and guides with Forest Service and BLM permits stay afloat during the truncated recreation season.
Pete Wallstrom, a guide and owner of Ashland-based Momentum River Expeditions, said outdoor recreation with outfitters has been growing and thriving over the past decade. The industry provides sustainable jobs and introduces people to the outdoors.
“However, COVID-19 could decimate many of the small businesses that make up the industry and cause long-term damage to our local rural economies,” Wallstrom said. “This bill will support our public lands and the many communities and businesses that depend on them by supporting outfitters, critical forest resiliency and wildfire projects, and the backlog of trail and facility maintenance projects. It would provide critical short-term help and be a long-term win for the region. We strongly support this bill.”
Wyden said small outfitter and guide businesses have generally been left out of federal aid that has gone to shore up companies across the country.
The Nature Conservancy backs the bill, saying it would provide critical relief for rural communities that have lost revenue and are at greater risk from respiratory diseases during the wildfire season.
In April, Jackson County commissioners declared a local disaster due to drought conditions. The region is experiencing less rain and a smaller snowpack, which increases wildfire risk and cuts the amount of water available for farmers, ranchers, orchards, vineyards and water recreation.
The Oregon Department of Forestry declared May 1 the start of fire season in southwest Oregon, a month earlier than last year’s June 1 start.
The Rogue Valley could face a triple disaster this summer of drought, wildfire and COVID-19.
Meanwhile, research is showing smoke puts people at greater risk from the virus.
Smoke reduces the ability of virus-fighting cells to clear out invaders and increases the risk of serious complications, hospitalization and death from COVID-19, according to research in America, China and Europe.
Wildland firefighters could be especially hard hit because they work in conditions with heavy smoke and traditionally stay in crowded fire camps where the virus could spread. Officials and crews are taking steps to change training and work and camp conditions to reduce the threat.
Wyden’s bill would also provide $100 million for land management agencies to purchase and provide personal protective equipment such as masks for their employees, contractors and service workers.
An additional $150 million would go to the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program for community forest restoration and fire risk reduction.
The bill would provide $500 million for landscape restoration projects across federal, state and private lands — including $100 million for the Firewise program that helps local governments reduce wildfire risk.
Water conservation and habitat improvement projects on farms would get a $10 billion boost.
While the fate of the bill is uncertain, Wyden helped win millions of dollars for Rogue Valley fuels reduction projects — including in the Ashland Watershed — during the Great Recession when Congress approved stimulus funding.
Wyden said he hopes Congress will step up now to help fight the collision of wildfire season and COVID-19.
“I think it’s going to be a very tough summer in the woods,” he said.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.