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Guest opinion: A record wildfire year -- time to reform forest management

Congressman Raul Labrador

This year will go down as one of the worst fire seasons in U.S. history. With fires still burning across the West, federal wildfire spending has reached $2.4 billion – topping the previous record of $2.1 billion in 2015.

This year’s fires have prompted emergency declarations by governors in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Montana and California. Almost 50,000 wildfires have been reported, consuming over 8.5 million acres and hundreds of homes. Almost 600,000 acres have burned in Idaho.

Idahoans have endured terrible smoke, as air quality reached very unhealthy and even hazardous levels. Students were forced inside for recess, and athletic practices and games cancelled. The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality issued a statewide air quality alert banning all open burning – the first statewide ban since 2015.

The 2015 fire season set the record for acres burned – over 10 million. Unfortunately, Congress didn’t heed the warning and acknowledge federal forest management practices are failing. Unsurprisingly, we’re seeing more massive fires wreck our forests, water, wildlife and communities.

I’m hopeful that another record fire season will finally prompt Congress to improve forest health, combat catastrophic fires and restore sensible multiple-use management.

Actually, the House has acted, passing the Resilient Federal Forests Act last year. But the Senate didn’t take up the bill.

The good news is the House continues to advance the legislation, with the Natural Resources Committee approving the bipartisan measure in June. As an original cosponsor, I have publicly called on House leadership to schedule a floor vote. H.R. 2936 is authored by Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark.

The bill acknowledges that wildfires on federal lands should be treated like all other natural disasters. The legislation provides immediate tools to fight fires, remove dangerous fuels, replant burned forests, and reform how we pay for firefighting.

The Forest Service says 30 percent of its land, about 58 million acres, is at high risk or very high risk of severe wildfire  –  an area larger than Idaho. In the past 20 years, 349 people have died because of wildfires and in the past decade about 37,000 structures have been destroyed.

The Resilient Federal Forests Act simplifies procedural requirements and reduces planning times, while continuing to protect the environment. The bill provides incentives for collaboration, creates a pilot program to use binding arbitration to resolve legal challenges, and accelerates habitat improvement for wildlife.

The Forest Service is so busy trying to fend off lawsuits from environmentalists that it suffers from a “process predicament.”  The result, according to an internal agency report, is the Forest Service “has trouble fulfilling its historic mission to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.”

That’s simply unacceptable. It’s time Congress to curtail frivolous lawsuits and enact other reforms to protect public resources, lives and property before the 2018 fire season. Failure to act simply guarantees more catastrophic fires.

For more on H.R. 2936, click here