Oregon senator calls for increased wildfire prevention efforts

At a hearing this week, Sen. Jeff Merkley outlined a plan to find solutions to the country's forest management concerns, including removing a cap on wildfire suppression spending


Zack Demars
The World, Coos Bay, Ore.

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley hopes to use his post on a powerful Senate committee to increase funding for wildfire prevention efforts.

The Democratic senator this week convened a hearing of an appropriations subcommittee he chairs on the topic of funding forest management. Merkley and the subcommittee questioned U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen about the agency's fire prevention work.

"Forests of course are absolutely the heart of Oregon's identity. We value the forests. They're headwaters of our clean drinking water, they're the genesis of our salmon runs, they're the backbone of our recreation in our rural economies," Sen. Merkley said. "And the Forest Service and the professionals that staff it are critical to our state, our people, our economy." (Erin Scott/The New York Times via AP, Pool)

"The 2020 fire year became a call to action. We saw the most acres burned on the Forest Service lands since the Big Burn of 1910. In many places, forests will not come back on their own, which impacts the potential for carbon storage and limits the land's capacity to mitigate climate change," Christiansen told the committee.

In all, Christiansen told senators her agency needs more money for fuel management programs and to provide higher pay for wildland firefighters.

"Despite the pandemic, the Forest Service sustained our hazardous fuels production work, but we know it's not enough. We need a paradigm shift," she said.

In comments to reporters after the hearing, Merkley laid out his vision for providing those funds through congress.

"Forests of course are absolutely the heart of Oregon's identity. We value the forests. They're headwaters of our clean drinking water, they're the genesis of our salmon runs, they're the backbone of our recreation in our rural economies," Merkley said. "And the Forest Service and the professionals that staff it are critical to our state, our people, our economy."

One key program Merkley noted to promote resilient forests was the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, which brings together timber, environmental and other stakeholders in certain forests to collaborate on forest management.

"These collaborative have been just an amazing opportunity for folks who'd (been) considered rivals or almost enemies to come together and work out a plan. And the result is the plans stay out of court, because the stakeholders were there from the beginning talking to each to each other," Merkley said.

He's hoping to get congress to approve $80 million for the program in the next budget year, doubling its appropriation.

Merkley also wants the federal government to spend more money on taking care of its forests, by thinning, mowing and burning forests to reduce the risk of the most intense wildfires.

He says there are 2.3 million acres of forests in Oregon which have received environmental review for that kind of cleanup — but that haven't gotten it yet.

"And yet, we don't have the money to do the treatment," Merkley said.

The senator wants to see more funding available to support that work, especially in President Joe Biden's soon-to-be-released jobs and infrastructure package.

Beyond those large programs, Merkley said he's also supporting other wildfire efforts, like funding for Oregon land and water conservation projects, removing a cap on wildfire suppression spending and establishing year-round firefighting teams to do fire prevention in the offseason.

In all, the senator said forest management will only continue to be more important as the climate continues to change.

"We really have to pay attention to forest management, so that's why I called this first hearing, 'The Future of Forest Management,' and asked the type of questions and pursued these types of programs," Merkley said.

The complete subcommittee hearing is available on the senate's website at https://www.appropriations.senate.gov/hearings/rethinking-resiliency-budgeting-for-the-future-of-forest-management.

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(c)2021 The World, Coos Bay, Ore.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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