The Twofold Solution to Protect Our National Forests and Communities | Commentary

Posted June 17, 2015 at 3:25pm

Nearly 60 million acres of our national forests are at risk of increasingly destructive wildfires, and experts agree the situation is getting worse each year.

These unnatural fires have taken lives and caused enormous property losses, and had profound effects on our forested ecosystems including serious soil erosion, watershed destabilization, wildlife habitat loss, astonishing carbon emissions and serious social and economic impacts to many communities throughout the American West.

The good news is the U.S. Forest Service knows what is needed to turn this situation around. Taking a science-based approach to thinning our overly dense forests and reducing fuels results in a healthier and more resilient forest, far more resistant to wildfire and disease — so that when fire occurs, firefighters are able to protect communities and minimize extreme impacts to the land. The Forest Service has a proven track record when both the tools and resources have been made available to it, and especially when working with local groups of citizens with varied interests who come together to resolve fire-related issues and work together to get results. These collaborative efforts have demonstrably and successfully protected forests and communities.

So what’s the problem? The problem is only about 2 percent to 3 percent of the huge area at risk is being treated each year. Why? Because the sheer multitude of laws, regulations, and a 25-year deluge of appeals and lawsuits to block projects to thin dense forests and reduce fuels hazards in the forest have led to bureaucratic processes that are shockingly dysfunctional to reasonable people. Today, it is possible for communities and agency professionals to work for two or three years to design a project only to have one outside person or group file a lawsuit and stop it in its tracks. And if they win even one minor point on a technicality, the government actually pays them for their expenses. Meanwhile, the consequences of delayed or canceled projects can be very serious.

Congress is prepared to help by providing the Forest Service the tools it needs, empowering the use of collaborative groups with carefully balanced and thoughtful legislation — the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015 (HR 2647). The proposal reduces incentives to file lawsuits. It streamlines the approval process while still protecting the forest and provides for reforestation so our grandchildren can enjoy forests and not brush fields in the future. It’s an important step forward. You may hear the typical fears from a few groups or individuals stuck in the past, who think the status quo is just fine. They will predict the usual ecological Armageddon. Don’t believe it. It’s pretty low risk to have professional land managers working alongside diverse community groups. But the risks created by inaction are proven and substantial.

Congress must also solve the problem of funding for disaster response to large fires in the same way we pay for hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters, without raiding other Forest Service programs such as recreation, wildlife, and even fuels reduction and thinning projects designed to protect communities. Passage of the proposed Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (HR 167/S 235) or something similar would fix that. If Congress fails to act on both of these crucial problems, we are certain to continue to lose a lot more of our treasured national forests and rural communities.

Dale N. Bosworth was chief of the United States Forest Service from 2001 to 2007, and Jim W. Golden is the chairman of the National Association of Forest Service Retirees.