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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

McMorris Rodgers noncommittal on climate change, wildfires

Firefighters negotiate thought topographical terrain while battling fire on East Valley Chapel Road on Monday, Aug. 22, 2016, near Valleyford, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

When Gov. Jay Inslee visited Spokane and declared a widespread state of emergency on Tuesday, he said citizens and lawmakers must “attack climate change itself” in order to prevent devastating wildfires.

But Eastern Washington’s congressional representative took a different tack on Wednesday, saying she wants to focus on forest management rather than human-caused climate change and the unusually hot and dry summers of recent years.

During a news conference at the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center, where local fire departments have established a joint command center, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers was noncommittal when asked about Inslee’s comments.

“I think the policy focus needs to be on healthy forests. We need to be looking at better forest management,” she said. “Clearly, we have a lot of trees that are dead, diseased, bug-infested, and that needs to be addressed.”

The Republican congresswoman also sidestepped a question about limiting carbon emissions, a goal the Democratic governor has repeatedly tried to push through the Legislature.

She responded, “If people really understood the conditions of our forests – bug infestations that we have, the disease, dying timber that is basically kindling for fires – I believe that they would be demanding that we take action.”

But research suggests those problems are inseparable from climate change.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, “Changing climate conditions can influence the spread of infectious diseases and their carriers, and add stresses to trees, making them more susceptible to diseases. Tree disease can also be caused by abiotic conditions such as air pollution.”

McMorris Rodgers made similar comments last October during a meeting with local fire officials. They reflect her contentious history with environmental groups, including the League of Conservation Voters, which has given her a “lifetime score” of 4 percent for her votes on environmental issues.

In April 2011, McMorris Rodgers voted in favor of a measure that limited the Environmental Protection Administration’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. She joined a majority of her Republican colleagues alleging the EPA was stifling economic growth with overly burdensome regulations.

Environmental issues aside, McMorris Rodgers said she is encouraged by the government’s response to recent wildfires, including those in Spokane and Valleyford. She said the Federal Emergency Management Agency worked quickly to authorize grants to cover firefighting costs.

“In recent years we’ve seen some devastating fires in this region, but today’s report is more encouraging,” she said. “We’ve been on these fires very quickly, and I’m hoping that they will get them under control.”

Echoing comments she made last year, McMorris Rodgers said something must be done about so-called “fire borrowing,” where the Forest Service takes money that should be spent on prevention and instead uses it to fight fires.

“We’ve been borrowing from management funds in order to fight fires, and that is what we need to change,” she said. “We need to protect the money that is dedicated to management and prevention and then fight fires with a separate funding source.”

The House of Representatives last year passed a bill authorizing FEMA to supplement the Forest Service’s firefighting budget. McMorris Rodgers didn’t say where additional funding would come from.

“We’re taking these fires very seriously, and it’s always devastating when we have the losses that we’ve had and the structures that we’ve lost this year, again,” she said.