U.S. Rep. Greg Walden says a forest-thinning bill that passed the House Nov. 1 will dramatically reduce the severe wildfires that choked the region in smoke this past summer. If the legislation would accomplish that, it would be worth supporting. But there is plenty of evidence that it would not.
The bill calls for thinning overgrown forests and logging burned trees left after fires, and limits environmental review of proposed timber harvests.
Walden says “we can reduce the size and intensity of fire up to 70 percent, if we do the kinds of projects that thin out the forests and allow us to better manage and be better stewards of our federal forests.”
The “70 percent” figure may be wishful thinking, but there is truth in what Walden says — if the thinning is limited to small-diameter trees and overgrown brush that fuel destructive fires, and especially when the work is done near populated areas. The problem, as Rep. Peter DeFazio says, is how to pay for it.
Without logging larger, commercially valuable trees, thinning projects must be subsidized. And research has shown that removing larger, more fire-resistant trees makes destructive wildfires more likely, not less.
The House bill proposes to generate money to pay for thinning by salvage logging large burned trees and replanting. But researchers who studied the Biscuit fire of 2005 found that fire burned more severely in forests that were logged and replanted after previous fires than in areas that were left to regenerate naturally.
There’s another common sense point to be made — fires can start up anywhere among the 16 million acres of public and private forest lands in the state. And they won’t necessarily start in the vicinity of where the thinning occurred.
The House bill does address the issue of “fire borrowing,” the prohibition on spending federal disaster funds to fight wildfires. Under existing rules, the Forest Service must raid parts of its budget set aside for forest health projects to cover firefighting costs. Under the legislation, Federal Emergency Management Agency funds could be tapped to pay for fighting catastrophic fires. The White House, however, has indicated it does not support the bill as written because it would force competition for funding between wildfires and other disasters such as hurricanes.
Other legislation, with bipartisan support, would fix the fire borrowing problem without expanded logging and without removing environmental safeguards.
Projects to improve forest health and lessen the severity of wildfires are important and necessary. Allowing the Forest Service to stop spending money it had budgeted for restoration work on fighting fires instead should be the top priority.