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Thursday, May 23, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers: Forest, wildfire bill needs to become law

With wildfires burning across the Northwest, the U.S. House of Representatives has taken action to prevent catastrophic fire, effectively fight wildfires when they happen, and bring jobs and opportunity to rural communities.

When we envision our national forests, we imagine healthy trees and green foliage.

That’s what they can be, but unfortunately – too often – that’s not what they are.

Large sections of our forests are disease-ridden and dying, just waiting to be tinder for a forest fire. Bureaucracy in Washington, D.C., is just making it worse.

Each year roughly 73,000 wildfires impact 7.3 million acres of private and public land. If you drive across the western United States, it’s impossible to overlook the charred remains of once-beautiful forests.

Last summer, the Carlton Complex Fire wreaked havoc across north-central Washington, eventually becoming the largest wildfire in state history. It destroyed more than 300 homes, covered more than 256,000 acres, and took the life of an Okanogan County resident.

Washingtonians saw unprecedented damage, and we owe it to our communities to prevent such large-scale fires from happening again.

The federal government made a promise to actively manage America’s forests for the benefit of those who call this land home – and to preserve it for their livelihood. Clearly, the government has faltered in this commitment. Decades of burdensome regulations and frivolous lawsuits have hindered forest management.

The U.S. Forest Service estimates that between one-fourth and one-third of all national forest acreage is at risk of catastrophic wildfire. Much of this is dead, diseased and bug-infested timber.

Unfortunately, those who want to help clear this dead timber are stymied by endless red tape and bureaucratic hurdles, and the Forest Service’s hands are tied.

As a result, little gets done and no significant dent is made in the number of at-risk acres.

When the Evergreen State goes up in smoke, it doesn’t bode well for anyone.

Roughly one-quarter of the world’s forest products come from the United States. The damage from even a small-scale forest fire does considerable harm to our local businesses and our state’s competitiveness nationally and around the world.

Timber production on federal land has declined by 90 percent since 1989, leading to mill closures and job loss. Here in Eastern Washington, we’ve missed out on millions of dollars in economic opportunity.

We have every reason to be concerned – especially with wildfire season upon us.

There is no single solution that will protect us from wildfires, but I took action to help.

I put forward a collaborative, 21st-century approach to forest management that builds on the proven success of the A-Z Mill Creek Pilot Project in the Colville National Forest. Coordinating with the Forest Service, local leaders, private companies and members of Congress, I introduced HR 2178, the FORESTS Act of 2015 this spring.

Last week, I voted for HR 2647, the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015. This bipartisan legislation incorporates the best combined ideas from my bill, which calls for the Forest Service, local leaders, and private companies to work together to expedite environmental review.

This bill will modernize the contract approval process so the Forest Service has the tools it needs to quickly remove dead trees and to effectively manage forests in Eastern Washington and across the country.

It also modernizes the way we pay to fight catastrophic wildfires. Now, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will cover additional costs, allowing Forest Service funds to be properly spent on forest management. Finally, this bill strengthens the Secure Rural Schools program, a continued priority for me.

It’s now time for the Senate to pass this bill and the president to sign it into law. We must preserve our forests – for our economy, environment, enjoyment and safety – for generations to come.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers represents the 5th Congressional District.
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