20160911 Labrador ColumnEvery year, Idahoans and others in the West suffer through wildfires that damage public health, destroy valuable timber, wreck watersheds and kill wildlife.

The Pioneer Fire in the Boise National Forest is among the nation’s worst this year, burning 182,000 acres and costing taxpayers $82 million so far. The fire started July 18, and firefighters don’t expect to have it contained until mid-October.

Last year we saw a record 10.1 million acres burn nationwide, and the Forest Service spent more than half its budget on firefighting -- up from 15 percent 20 years ago.

The Forest Service classifies 30 percent of its land at high risk of catastrophic fire, about the size of New York and Pennsylvania combined. Unfortunately, just 1.5 percent of the forests are treated each year to remove the fuels that sustain huge fires.

We can and must do better.

I am supporting three bills to prevent catastrophic fires, improve forest health and reform the way we pay for firefighting.

Last year, the House passed Rep. Bruce Westerman’s Resilient Federal Forests Act to cut fire risk and restore burned-over lands. Critically, the bill speeds the salvage of timber before it spoils after catastrophic events by streamlining environmental reviews. The bill provides for reforestation and swifter approval of projects reducing hazardous fuels, including removal of trees sickened by insects and disease. It also expedites projects protecting watersheds and wildlife.

I am the author of another bill, the Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act, which was approved by the House Natural Resources Committee in July. My bill will permit up to 2 percent of the 193 million acres in the National Forest System to be managed at the state and local level. These lands would remain in federal ownership.

The bill was sparked by my conversations with county commissioners in Idaho, who want the chance to prove that the people living amidst the forests can do a better job than those in Washington, D.C.

A third bill authored by my Idaho colleagues Rep. Mike Simpson and Sen. Mike Crapo has bipartisan support. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act treats catastrophic fires like other natural disasters, rather than require the Forest Service to borrow from other accounts to pay firefighting costs in busy fire years. That will help the Forest Service fulfill its management responsibilities to make our forests more resilient and healthy.

Of course, we can’t stop all wildfires. But our forests are vital for our economy, recreation, clean water, wildlife and much more. We must take reasonable steps to protect the natural heritage that makes the West so special and keep Idaho the greatest place to live in America.