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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Our forests are being shortchanged by Congress

As long as the feds keep shortchanging the U.S. Forest Service, the agency will struggle to establish healthier forests that are more fire resistant.

In parts of the Northwest, more than nine million acres of forested land should be selectively logged, according to a study by the Forest Service and the Nature Conservancy. The study focused on the drier forests of Eastern Washington, Eastern Oregon and Southwest Oregon and found that 40 percent of them suffer from unnatural conditions.

Northeast Washington forests are too densely packed with small trees due to long-ago fires that claimed the large old-growth ones. The study recommends extensive thinning and controlled burns to pave the way for the next generation of large trees, which would be more fire resistant and better protectors of wildlife.

The Washington Department of Natural Resources has embarked on a more aggressive restoration campaign, but federal forests cover a much larger area than their state counterparts.

Forests are more susceptible to infestations of tree-killing insects and fires when restoration practices can’t keep pace with the need. According to the study, this produces conditions that harm water quality, fish and wildlife, recreation and the timber industry.

The study doesn’t talk about funding, but U.S. Forest Service’s budget has been squeezed over time, and funds set aside for restoration and other programs are raided to fight fires. Changes in the climate have extended the fire season from five months to seven. Last summer’s Carlton Complex fire in north-central Washington was the largest in state history. Six of the nation’s worst wildfires have occurred in the past 14 years.

In August, as wildfires raged across the West, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack released data showing that 42 percent of the Forest Service budget was being spent on battling blazes. It was 16 percent in 1995. In 2012, about 12,000 Forest Service workers were dedicated to fires, up from 5,700 in 1995.

This shift in resources, called “fire borrowing,” means the agency has woeful resources for forest restoration, road and bridge maintenance and watershed and wildlife programs.

Vilsack has called on Congress to increase the agency’s budget and to allow it to draw on emergency funds set aside for natural disasters, such as hurricanes and tornadoes, when fires become extreme. U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., have worked on such legislation. Congress should pass it.

Public-private stewardship is another answer. Vaagen Brothers Lumber Inc. was awarded a $30 million bid to manage the Mill Creek area tract near Colville. The company will make money on the trees, workers will be employed and needed thinning will occur. But projects like this are also constrained by the Forest Service budget.

To end the cycle of decreased treatments and increased fires, Congress will need to budget smarter. It certainly doesn’t have money to burn.

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