Congress should support fire prevention on family forests (OPINION)

Congress should support fire prevention on family forests (OPINION)

17 November 2015

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USA–  The recently ended fire season, for private landowners, was the third most expensive in the last 10 years. It managed to touch almost every Oregonian.

Some Oregonians were directly impacted by one of the many blazes. Road blockages, campground closures and days of unhealthy, smoky air over Portland and many other urban and rural areas were just some of the inconveniences.

As a result, policymakers are scrambling to find ways to avoid a repeat next year.

They would do well to review a new report from the American Forest Foundation (AFF). AFF is a non-profit that helps private and family owned forests meet Americans’ needs for clean air and water.

AFF’s report, using state and federal data, identified 145 million acres of forest and other land across 11 Western states that are threaten by catastrophic wildfire. But, contrary to popular perception, not all this land is public land.

More than a third of these acres, some 52 million acres, are private and family owned land. Oregon families own more than 4.3 million of these acres.

As a retired forester, I own 40 of those family owned acres on a woodland about 35 miles outside of Portland.

Anyone looking at a map of Oregon’s forests will see a mosaic of checkerboards and jigsaw puzzles. Pieces intersect with one another in strange shapes. In some cases, small tracts of private and family owned land exist within larger sections of public land. And, as all landowners know, fire doesn’t respect property lines.

As Oregon State Forester Doug Decker recently said, “Working successfully across ownership boundaries is critical when responding to an active fire, and it’s just as important when it comes to addressing the causes of fire over the long term.”

However, Oregonians need to work harder on fire prevention, mitigation and restoration, on all ownerships and across all boundary lines.

There are currently about 30 projects taking place in Oregon that support wildfire mitigation and restoration. Most do not involve cross-boundary work. Instead, they only address public lands. As a result, our efforts are uncoordinated and the results are, at best, uneven.

What’s more, AFF’s analysis shows that most of us small, family landowners (70 percent) want to take action against wildfires and are eager to help. The problem is an even more of us (77 percent) don’t have the resources to do it.

With family landowners ready to take action, we need Congress to do more to encourage both public and private owner involvement in wildfire mitigation and restoration activities.

AFF’s report makes several recommendations addressing cross-boundary activities that deserve bipartisan support from our Oregon congressional delegation.

For example, there are a few cross-boundary projects underway in Eastern Oregon. In the Blue Mountains surrounding La Grande, the Oregon Department of Forestry, AFF, the U.S. Forest Service and others are working together to reduce fire risk across 140 square miles.

The Blue Mountains project is evidence that cross-boundary programs work. With the right outreach and follow-up to private and family landowners, progress is being made. But we can do more.

We need Congress to give the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management the authority to make these cross-boundary projects a standard tool in their tool box. These agencies – our neighbors – can then use these programs where they are most effective.

In addition, Oregon’s family landowners need more funding support for cross-boundary work to address the catastrophic wildfire threat.

As long as lightning and stupid people start fires, wildfires will always be a part of life in Oregon. While we can’t stop lightning and, as much as we try, we can’t fix stupid, we can do something to help mitigate the threat and reduce the costs to landowners, communities and Oregon taxpayers. To truly lower the wildfire threat, a cross-boundary approach is essential.

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