As you read this, tens of thousands of acres are going up in flames across the West. Decades of misguided forest management strategies and decisions are coming home to roost.
The U.S. Forest Service’s enacted FY 2016 budget of $7 billion included $3.2 billion for wildfire suppression, 44.3 percent of the agency’s entire budget. An additional $700 million was transferred from other budgeted line items to cover last year’s firefighting efforts, a process better known as fire-borrowing. This brings firefighting efforts to just under $4 billion, 55 percent of the agency’s budget.
Logic would tell you that firefighting should not be an agency’s largest expenditure if it is tasked with maintaining healthy forests. Already in 2017, more than 7 million acres have burned across the United States, with cities like Los Angeles experiencing their worst wildfires on record. The reality is that wildfires will only grow worse over time if we continue down the current path.
With wildfires growing in intensity and size year after year, it makes sense for the American people to demand answers for how we got here. As members of the Natural Resources Committee, we have had the discussion. The management plans of the last several decades have lacked actual management.
Instead, the focus has been on extinguishing fires. The result of this approach has been overgrowth, which has crowded growing space, weakened trees and increased insect and disease infestations. This has led to trees and plants competing for water and nutrients, leaving behind dead and rotting wood. When wildfires spark through either natural or manmade actions, the dead timber acts as fuel. As fuel continues to build up, the wildfires become larger, hotter and more deadly. Our treasured forests – that when healthy, clean our air and protect our streams – then become polluters.
No action we take in Congress can immediately reduce the risk of tens of millions of acres going up in flames, but it will start the long process of reversing decades of mismanagement of our federal forests.
HR 2936, the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017, is a bipartisan bill designed to protect our nation’s forests from catastrophic wildfires. Just like we can use good science and management to make sure our engines stay tuned-up and our bodies are healthy, our forests can greatly benefit from applied science.
The act allows the Forest Service to enact management plans to include commercial thinning, that is not only scientifically proven to maintain healthy forests, it also pays for itself. The legislation puts more power back in the hands of the foresters who know best how to maintain healthy forests and preserve the national forests we all love.
It is time for Congress to do its job, so the Forest Service can do its job – conserving our nation’s forests for future generations to enjoy. The first step is to pass HR 2936.
Congressman Scott Tipton (R-Cortez) represents the 3rd District of Colorado and Congressman Bruce Westerman (R-AR) represents the 4th District of Arkansas in the U.S. House of Representatives. Both are members of the House Committee on Natural Resources and Congressional Western Caucus.