Robert Ehlert : Idaho delegation collaborates on forest fire disaster legislation

Robert Ehlert : Idaho delegation collaborates on forest fire disaster legislation

23 February 2014

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USA —  I kept looking for a mention or comment from Idaho astronomers this week after one of the most unusual alignments in the Gem State’s political universe occurred Wednesday in the Garden City atmosphere.

Reps. Raul Labrador and Mike Simpson shared space with Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch behind a podium during a U.S. Forest Service gathering about the benefits and need for collaborative efforts to restore forests and maintain pristine watersheds. Everyone was engaged along with the Idaho Forest Restoration Partnership to discuss new “fire funding legislation and collaborative land management projects, including job creation, in Idaho.”

The only thing missing at the Riverside Hotel was narration by James Earl Jones. But since this gathering was about forest wars and colonies of collaboration among statewide stakeholders (and not about “Star Wars”), the presence of Boise native and U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell was just right.

Our Idaho congressional delegation seldom leaves the front lines of the Obamacare obstructionist wars and the battles of the budget to stand together and co-sponsor bills along with Democrats to do the peoples’ bidding. But that is happening with the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which Crapo and Simpson co-sponsored.

Forget the subplot of Labrador and Simpson tensions in the divided House Republican Caucus for a moment — they were seen to smile and shake hands, and it looked convincing before the many cameras and media outlets assembled. So, let’s applaud and focus on the reality of this rare gathering.

All four members of the Idaho congressional delegation are behind legislation that would allow the government to treat forest fires like FEMA-level disasters. That could mean tapping FEMA funding and assets — to what extent remains to be seen.

As Crapo pointed out, hurricanes, tornadoes and floods don’t have anything over the destructive force and fiscal drain of fighting fires. Why shouldn’t they be on par with any disaster and receive the same federal attention and resources?

Every year Tidwell watches the fires in the West grow larger and more destructive. Along comes August and the climax of these infernos. The money set aside to fight the fires is used up, so Tidwell must reach into a budget set aside for forest management to pay the fire bill. It is irony that a chunk of this forest management money is earmarked for fire suppression and forest thinning. The thinning and “treatment” of the forest never happens to the level it could, so when the fires return annually they can rage even more.

This idea and the level of congressional cooperation (Oregon Democrats like Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Kurt Schrader) is so logical and seemingly natural it takes my breath away. These four lawmakers have taken a look at Idaho’s place in the forested universe and noticed that there are commonalities with neighboring forested states in the West. The rarely used bi-partisan cards — is this an election year? — have emerged from a deck decorated with Kumbaya images.

Good ideas still need conviction and hard work to get them passed through the ups and downs of primaries and general elections when a majority of the 525 occupants of the Capitol are being distracted by, oh, yes, those pesky primaries and elections.

So besides being bipartisan, this initiative has to be bicoastal. Members of the Idaho delegation and other states in the West need to convince their colleagues East of the Mississippi that our forest fires deserve a place at the FEMA disaster table.

Sad to think this way, but is it possible this initiative makes so much sense it could be doomed?

Let’s hope not. And let’s remember to hold our delegation’s feet to the fire and demand such cooperative efforts in the future.

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