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Barrasso Blames Inaction For Wildfires, Others Blame Funding Cuts

U.S. Forest Service

Forest fires have dominated headlines in much of the west this summer. Wyoming Senator John Barrasso chairs the Senate Environment Committee and this week held a hearing on a string of bills that proponents say will help keep those catastrophic wildfires at bay.

To Barrasso and a bipartisan group of senators, the problem is clear: Catastrophic wildfires are manmade, well more precisely, made by the inaction of man and all the red tape of environmentalists.

“Decades of fire suppression and a rapid decline in active management have led to overly dense forests susceptible to disease and pest outbreaks. Pest or disease leaves thick stands of dead trees, which are poor habitat for iconic species such as elk, links, deer, and other wildlife that depend on vibrant forest ecosystems.”

The bills Barrasso’s committee is examining range from loosening environmental restrictions that force forest management projects to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to another that would exclude more acreage from environmental reviews. Barrasso says something needs to be done to allow people to clear forests of brush more easily.

“What’s most agree just as our federal land managers could mitigate a significant portion of these risks. Fires are historically important part of an ecosystem, but these large unnatural catastrophic wildfires are not. In order to address this threat, we need to actively manage forests with excess dead wood. Large stands of dead trees need to be removed in a timely fashion, so we are not facing another 8 million acres of burned lands.”

Without those changes, proponents say the nation’s western forests will continue to burn. Jessica Crowder – a Policy Advisor for Governor Matthew Mead – told the committee Wyoming residents face health risks if nothing is done.

“Human health is certainly a concern when it comes to wildfires. The air quality in Wyoming has been particularly bad this summer. Particulate matter or those patriciates that get suspended in the air, really do cause damage. The Wyoming Department of Health has put out several announcements and warnings to Wyoming citizens over the past several months, warning them to stay indoors and close their windows.”  

Crowder says Wyoming’s economy is also at risk if nothing is done.

“We have several of these reserved of forests and wilderness areas and national parks that people enjoy visiting. We have several places throughout our state that people love to go fish, love to go hike, love to get on the Snake River and go raft. What we see from wildfires are concerns from are tourists and our citizens, that they can’t do what they really want to do.”     

While Democrats on the Environment Committee are usually at odds with the GOP on many issues, there wasn’t much pushback from the minority party on forest policy. That rankled environmentalists like Brett Hartl – the Government Affairs Director for the Center for Biological Diversity. He says it’s been hard to be vocal this summer as millions of acres burned.

“This issue has been a tough one in the sense that, especially when the west is still on fire it’s hard to be a voice saying let’s comply with our environmental laws instead of just do anything.”

Hartl says a lot of this could be mitigated if Congress only funded the Forest Service properly.

“The Forest Service – the land management agencies have been operating on flat budgets for many-many years, which don’t take into account realities of life. People’s cost of living goes up, salaries have to go up. A flat budget is effectively a cut to many agencies.”  

While testifying in favor of the bill to streamline forest management, Collin O’Mara, the president of the National Wildlife Federation, told senators that the new bills may not be necessary if Congress actually spent more money on forest management, which he says current law already allows.

“You can have all the management tools in the world, but if you don’t have the resources to get product on the ground, they are all for not. And I think right now when you’re spending 2 billion dollars between the Forest Service and BLM and Interior agencies on fighting these catastrophic fires, that doesn’t include the money that Pentagon is using and some states agencies are spending on top of it and so it’s a massive number.”   

O’Mara is calling for a separate savings account, of sorts, for western states prone to wildfires.

“My belief is that we should have a dedicated separate fund for fires, rather than trying to put it in the FEMA universe, because if there is another hurricane that hits New York or Delaware, or somewhere else, this funds are not predictable.”  

Still, the Republican majority in Washington doesn’t seem to want to dole out many more dollars for forest management. That’s why Senator Barrasso says these bills to streamline forest management are necessary.

“We must act quickly to address the risk to human health, infrastructure, and valuable ecosystems. There are millions of acres of federal land, forest land in dire need of thinning, restoration, and other attention.”  

With most of the nation’s lawmakers still focused on the devastating hurricane damage in Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida, it’s unclear when Barrasso will be able to bring these forest management bills to the floor.

Based on Capitol Hill, Matt Laslo is a reporter who has been covering campaigns and every aspect of federal policy since 2006. While he has filed stories for NPR and more than 40 of its affiliates, he has also written for Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, Campaigns and Elections Magazine, The Daily Beast, The Chattanooga Times Free Press, The Guardian, The Omaha World-Herald, VICE News and Washingtonian Magazine.
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