USA A bipartisan group of local, state and federal lawmakers in Oregon is renewing calls for a basic overhaul of the U.S. Forest Service.
Their comments came this week in the wake of an investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive that revealed how years of failed Forest Service policy and flawed budgets helped fuel the catastrophic Canyon Creek fire in August 2015.
Sen. Ron Wyden, along with U.S. Reps. Greg Walden, Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader all expressed deep frustration with an ongoing congressional stalemate and an overly cautious agency that increasingly diverts money from land management programs to fight wildfires. The practice delays restoration work that makes forests more resistant to devastating fire, placing large swaths of Oregon’s federal timberland and nearby communities at risk.
“Again and again, the three of us have pointed out the cost to the rural West and to America for this broken, dysfunctional mess of a budget, which is how we fight fire in America today,” Wyden said this week at a press conference with two Republican senators from Idaho.
Holding a copy of The Oregonian/OregonLive’s investigation “Burned,” Wyden stood inside the same building in Boise where he and the other lawmakers made the same pitch last year. Since that meeting, the Canyon Creek wildfire burned through more than 110,000 acres parts of which had been slated in 2006 for thinning, logging and controlled burns aimed at helping to prevent such a catastrophic fire.
The Oregonian/OregonLive spent a year deconstructing Oregon’s most devastating wildfire in the last 80 years. Reporters found the Forest Service has fallen behind in its work to maintain and restore ecological balance to the nation’s forests in recent years, leaving timberland across the West primed to burn. The project also examined missteps made by Malheur National Forest fire managers leading up to the blaze.
Timber harvests and restoration work on the Malheur national forest have increased in recent years due to state and federal funding of collaborative groups designed to build consensus around such projects. But the work still falls well short of what the Forest Service says it needs to complete to return the Malheur to ecological health.
“We have to stop the erosion of these budgets to fight fire,” Wyden told The Oregonian/OregonLive. “We can’t just throw more money at this year after year.”
The federal lawmakers’ views were echoed by a handful of state legislators from east of the Cascades, where Oregon’s forests are particularly dry and at risk for wildfire. They urged Gov. Kate Brown to make the issue a priority and carry on her predecessor John Kitzhaber’s work to accelerate the pace and scale of the agency’s forest management.
Brown issued a statement Thursday saying, “My goal is to leverage federal, state, and local resources to efficiently fight wildfires, and continue to work with federal partners to be more proactive in improving forest health and protecting Oregon communities.”
Specifically, Brown passed Kitzhaber’s recommendation to double the budget of Oregon’s Federal Forest Health Program that aims to accelerate restoration work, said Bryan Hockaday, a spokesman for the governor’s office. He said Brown also supports the Federal Forest Working Group that tackles issues related to controlled burns, which experts say is necessary to reduce fire danger.
Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, said the governor has more resources than the part-time Legislature and that she must take the lead on the issue.
“Every summer, I hold my breath over whether we’re going to lose an Oakridge, a Sisters or a John Day,” Buehler said. “There’s nothing of greater urgency than dealing with this problem.
“The longer we wait, the danger just grows.”
For the Forest Service, the problem is twofold: Fire spending is consuming an ever-increasing percentage of a relatively flat budget, eating away at money for programs aimed at reducing fire risks.
Second, the agency regularly exhausts its firefighting budget before the end of the fire season and raids other programs to cover the shortfall, a practice known as “fire borrowing.”
Wyden and Republican Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho are pushing a funding fix that would stop the gradual erosion of the agency’s budget to fight fires. It would also allow the agency to tap natural disaster money to pay for the largest wildfires, ending fire borrowing.
“We need to recognize this 1 percent of the fires that cause 30 percent of the cost are catastrophic fires,” said Crapo on Monday. “They are disasters just as much as a hurricane, a flood or a tidal wave or the like and we should deal with them through the budgeting that Congress already is engaged in providing for dealing with natural disasters.”
Though lawmakers have debated such fixes for years, Wyden said he believes there’s more bipartisan support behind the legislation this year.
“After years of bitter fighting, there just may be a sweet spot this fall to get this fix,” he said, adding that a conference on the Energy Bill is being discussed for September that will be attended by key lawmakers from both the House and Senate.
Fix more than “borrowing”
While lawmakers agreed the budget issue must be addressed, several said they also believe that the Forest Service needs to be held more accountable for completing needed restoration work.
DeFazio, who served as the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee until last year, said the Forest Service has failed to take advantage of past legislation that allows them to more swiftly bring federal timberlands back into ecological balance.
“The U.S. Forest Service hasn’t used it as aggressively as they should,” DeFazio told The Oregonian/OregonLive this week. “The agency is risk averse to litigation and is moving much too cautiously.”
DeFazio said Wyden and others on the Natural Resources Committee must put a brighter spotlight on the Forest Service and hold it accountable for reaching restoration goals.
Republican Walden told The Oregonian/OregonLive recently that if Congress is able to pass legislation only on the “fire borrowing” issue, “we have totally missed the point.”
“We’re still left with the fires,” he said. “We’re still left with the forests that are choked with overgrowth. This all wrong. It doesn’t have to be this way.”
Walden says it’s time for Congress to eliminate rules that prohibit cutting trees greater than 21 inches in diameter, known as the “Eastside screens.” Walden contends the restrictions have no scientific basis and undercut the economics of timber harvests and restoration projects. He also says the agency needs to promote larger and sustained harvests.
“This is about getting the work done in an environmentally sensitive way, which can be done,” he said. “We need the jobs. The material needs to come out. We do it at the state level, the county level, but you come to the federal level, and it doesn’t happen.”
Oregon Sen. Ted Ferrioli, whose district includes the John Day area, said he’s attended annual gatherings in the past when the state’s congressional leaders tour Eastern Oregon and promise fixes for the Forest Service failures.
“But at end of the day, Congress doesn’t act and the Forest Service doesn’t respond to the local community’s needs,” the Republican leader said.
Ferrioli said the agency is essentially a firefighting business these days, and its forest management work comes to a halt during busy fire seasons.
“The execution of forest management high-centers, and folks return after a disastrous fire season to work and they’re two to three months behind,” said Ferrioli, adding that conversation threads get lost, people are transferred and plans get reworked.
“If your wildlife biologists, your archaeologists and your systems analysts for logging and planners are all essentially put on temporary duty assignment for fire — and that happens more than one time back to back across a couple of summers — years are added to a planning process.”
Work needed at the state level
Ferrioli said he hasn’t found much help in Salem. He said state lawmakers representing more urban areas don’t understand how the Forest Service’s “mismanagement” leads to huge losses of valuable natural resources and ultimately results in more environmental harm through thick summer wildfire smoke.
“I can’t get them to take this seriously,” Ferrioli said, “because it’s not happening in their yard.”
Ron Lundbom, mayor of John Day, said he and others in the community around last year’s devastating Canyon Creek fire are frustrated by lawsuits by environmental groups in the past that had limited logging.
He said he’s heard arguments about how forests are harmed when loggers go in using bulldozers or other heavy machinery. But a wildfire like last year’s “nukes the ground so that nothing grows here for 10 years.”
“They have pushed us not to log or clean our forests up as we have in the past,” Lundbom said. “I can’t believe they’re not up in arms over last year’s fire.”
No lawsuits have been filed over planned restoration projects in the Malheur for many years. That run is largely credited to work by “collaborative groups” made up of community members, loggers, Forest Service officials and conservationists that review projects, tour the targeted areas and ultimately, create trust among the participants.
Still, there is persistent opposition to many of the specific measures proposed to speed up environmental reviews, limit litigation, and expedite the treatments in forests. Some groups worry restoration work is a Trojan horse for much larger harvests of larger trees, and that the work compacts forest soils, destroys watersheds and threatens fish and wildlife.
If the Forest Service significantly increases the pace and scale of those projects, legal appeals and objections could increase again.
Schrader, a Democratic congressman who supports Wyden’s budget plan, said such litigation has made the agency “afraid of its own shadow.”
“A lot of folks in our urban environments, in all due respect, are living back in the 1970s and 1980s in terms of timber policy,” Schrader said. “We’re bankrupting rural Oregon. These communities are not coming back from the recession and won’t until we allow thoughtful forest management and let them earn a living out there in the woods and protect our most valued natural resources.”