In today’s polarized political environment, we should applaud U.S. Sens. Steve Daines and Diane Feinstein for working across the aisle to end the gridlock in the management of our federally owned forests. Despite claims made in this newspaper, we have tried the hands-off approach to forest management for the past quarter-century, and it’s not working. While we can’t control the weather, we can mitigate the fuels — through logging, thinning and prescribed fire — that influence the severity of wildfires.
Paralyzed by litigation and bureaucracy, this approach of non-management has only contributed to unhealthy forests and unnatural catastrophic wildfires. With at least 80 million acres of National Forest System lands at immediate risk of wildfire, insects and disease, it’s time for something different. Sens. Daines and Feinstein are offering solutions, and a similar bipartisan bill has been introduced in the U.S. House.
Both Republicans and Democrats agree on the need to accelerate treatments on overgrown forests where targeted thinning and timber removal can help reduce heavy fuel loads on national forests. The Daines-Feinstein legislation directs the Forest Service to expedite collaboratively developed, landscape-scale projects that reduce wildfire risks, while providing the agency some relief from obstructive, anti-forestry lawsuits.
The proposal would also accelerate post-fire restoration and reforestation, provide new resources to mitigate fire risks in our infrastructure, and increase the use of wildfire detection equipment. It also promotes the utilization of low-value wood material as biomass, which can generate renewable energy and is a better alternative than allowing the material to burn in the forest.
To help homeowners mitigate fire risks to their properties, the bill updates the Weatherization Assistance program to promote retrofits of homes to make them more fire resistant. At least 43 million homes in the United States are located within the “wildland urban interface.” Many of these homes are close to national forests, which should make accelerating treatments on federal lands a high priority. The Daines-Feinstein legislation provides additional protection to communities by expediting fuels treatments around roads, trails and transmission lines.
Increasing active forest management will also benefit the economy in many communities throughout the Intermountain West. Forest management often provides sustainable timber, which supports family wage jobs as well as primary and secondary manufacturing in Idaho.
Timber sales help pay for local public services and supports the maintenance of forest roads and improvements to recreational amenities. And forest management also provides access to public lands, which enables firefighters and public safety officials to respond to wildfires and other emergencies.
To help reduce the intensity of wildfires and protect lives, homes and our forests, we should support policies that promote defensible space near homes as well as those that accelerate forest management on federal lands. Doing nothing only leads to more of our forests being lost to wildfire, insects and disease.
It’s time to give our federal land managers the tools and resources to use the best practices and science available to protect our communities and restore the health of public lands. Congress can start by passing the bipartisan Daines-Feinstein solution and its companion legislation in the U.S. House.
Nick Smith is the director of public affairs for the American Forest Resource Council, a regional trade association representing the forest sector in the Pacific Northwest. He is also executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, a non-partisan grassroots coalition that advocates for active management of America’s federally-owned forests.