Panetta introduces Save Our Forests Act to increase staffing and mitigate wildfire risk in National Forests

22 September 2021

Published by https://www.montereyherald.com/

USA – SALINAS — Reps. Jimmy Panetta, D-Carmel Valley, and Blake Moore, R-UT,  announced the introduction of the Save Our Forests Act to address chronic staffing shortages in National Forests, including the Central Coast’s Los Padres National Forest.

By filling vacancies in National Forests and Grasslands, the legislation seeks to mitigate wildfire risk and safeguard natural resources.

“Over 80% of wildfires are caused by humans, often because people aren’t following the rules that keep everyone safe,” said Panetta in a press release announcing the bill Wednesday. “While visitation, including unfortunate instances of irresponsible visitation, at National Forests has increased, we’ve seen a notable decline in staffing within the National Forest System, including the Los Padres National Forest in Big Sur.”

To offset these shortages, the bill would direct the Secretary of Agriculture, acting through the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, to fill positions for recreation management and planning staff, including recreation technicians, recreation officers and natural resource managers.

An earlier version of this bill was introduced by Panetta during the last Congress in November 2020. Unlike before, the current legislation is now bi-partisan and provides a specific funding amount of $46 million to be appropriated annually for the next two fiscal years to fill vacancies.

Panetta believes this bill could provide the National Forest System the opportunity it needs to alleviate pressure placed on communities as the threat of wildfires persists.

“As accelerating climate change produces hotter, drier conditions, and our forests continue to suffer from chronic staffing shortages, our communities are left even more susceptible to devastating and deadly wildfires,” he said. “My bipartisan legislation, the Save Our Forests Act, will provide the funding necessary to rebuild the recreation management workforce in our federal forests, particularly those located in or near the wildland-urban interface.”

The bill would also direct the U.S. Forest Service to provide Forest Protection Officer training and certification opportunities for individuals filling these vacancies. Forest Protection Officer training programs are designed to provide non-law enforcement employees with the knowledge and skills to monitor violations of federal laws and regulations about National Forest System lands and resources.

Local officials have endorsed the bill, including Monterey County Supervisors Chris Lopez and Mary Adams.

“Since being elected to office, there have been two catastrophe fires in the Los Padres National Forest and adjacent communities, resulting in millions of dollars in damage to public and personal property,” Adams said. “Federal investment in staffing to manage the National Forest could have lessened the impact.

“We must learn from our past missteps to take action now and provide for adequate personnel to manage our public lands.”

The act is also endorsed by, among others, the Ventana Wilderness Alliance, Western Environmental Law Center, the Community Association of Big Sur, Big Sur Fire, the Sierra Club and State Assemblyman Robert Rivas.

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