Support for Sen. Cantwell’s Wildfire Management Act of 2015

Support for Sen. Cantwell’s Wildfire Management Act of 2015

Conservation Northwest / Jun 18, 2015 / Forest Field Program, National Forests, Wildfire

We look forward to working with Senator Cantwell and other congressional officials on this important legislation.

By Mitch Friedman, Executive Director

Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), the highest ranking minority member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, just released a white paperforecasting her Wildfire Management Act of 2015, which she intends to introduce soon.

Based on the descriptions in the white paper, Conservation Northwest is excited about this upcoming bill, which looks to take a much more progressive approach to the issue of fire on our federal public lands.

More information available: Senator Seeks Better Coordination for Wildfire Management and Emergency Response 

Congressional recycling bins are stuffed with knee-jerk bills that blame wildfire on conservation policies and attempt to make logging (both before and after fires) a higher priority for the Forest Service. Senator Cantwell’s approach reflects a better understanding of and response to real issues, and adds value over previous bills. The white paper identifies the objective as addressing the following six problems.

  1. Too many homes are being lost to wildfires. Sometimes this is due to the increased frequency of unnaturally large fires. Other times, it is due to the construction or maintenance needs around the houses themselves.
  2. “Good” fire needs to be carefully managed and returned to our nation’s landscapes, to help ensure the safety of neighborhoods in outlying areas and to restore the functioning of many of our ecosystems.
  3. The funding of federal agencies is insufficient to rectify the current situation, both because of the way in which fires are budgeted and because sometimes agencies do not focus their funding in the places that need it the most.
  4. The government will always need to fight undesirable fires. However, we need to decide what our fire management tools and responses should look like proactively, and how they should line up with other strategies.
  5. Scarce firefighting resources are currently chasing every wildfire. We need to define where we expect the federal agencies to show up and how.
  6. The federal government needs to show up quickly and be able to help communities in meaningful ways when they are at their time of greatest need—after experiencing a natural disaster, such as a large wildfire.

According to the white paper, the senator will continue to work with a bipartisan group of senators to develop these principles into actionable legislation and remains committed to cost-effective, beneficial reforms to wildfire management.

Right Focus on controlled fires

Senator Cantwell is absolutely correct to focus on the need for more controlled, or prescribed burning. Fire is an essential tool in not just reducing excessive fuels but restoring the health, habitat and watershed values of millions of acres. Many acres are in need of fire without accompanied tree thinning to achieve ecological objectives. Many places where tree thinning is called for need to also be burned after logging to successfully reduce wildfire risk. According to the white paper, “we have underinvested in controlled burns,” and the bill would authorize up to $300 million for this purpose.

Similarly, according to the white paper, we have underinvested in tree thinning for fuels reduction: “only $350 million is invested to curtail $2-3 billion worth of wildfire costs. We need to double down on this prevention method. This bill authorizes $1 billion for reducing hazardous fuels…”

Priorities and clear standards

Large wildfires are inevitable in many landscapes no matter how well we manage, especially under coming climate conditions. Building homes out in the woods, often right up against federal forest lands and far away from public services and firefighters, makes matters that much worse. The white paper recognizes that shortcoming of rural county planning and promises to “provide financial incentives to counties that prioritize development in areas with lower risk.”

Many fires should not be fought for reasons ranging from environmental to safety and cost effectiveness, and the white paper recognize this. “…not all fires can be fought, not all structures can be protected, and no lives should be risked only to defend structures. It follows that this bill would require federal agencies to establish clear standards of how and when they will suppress wildfires.”

We’re proud to see an elected leader from Washington state leading the way to reform and improve national forest management and wildfire policy. And we look forward to working with Senator Cantwell and other congressional officials on this important legislation.