Merkley bill directs $1 billion to wildfire fuels reduction

Posted: October 1, 2018

Source: KTVZ

Spring fuels reduction, cleanup of excess vegetation is a good move, if done carefully (Photo: Oregon Dept. of Forestry)

WASHINGTON – Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., on Wednesday introduced the Wildfire-Resilient Communities Act, a $1 billion measure to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires, and the smoke and economic losses that they cause.

“Across the country, our communities have been threatened by increasingly severe wildfires,” Merkley said in a news release “As we saw this summer in Oregon, even communities not directly impacted by flames were inundated with smoke.

“We need a dramatic increase in the resources that make our forests — and our timber economies —healthier.  With a guaranteed increase of $1 billion a year in fuels reduction and new authorities and incentives for communities to work to improve the resilience of their forests, we can stop catastrophic wildfires from becoming a staple of western summers.”

Due to a hotter and drier climate throughout much of the West, the risk of severe and catastrophic fires continues to grow. Last year, 71,500 wildfires burned 10 million acres nationwide, the second-largest figure on record. So far this year, nearly 7.5 million acres have burned. And yet, the Forest Service still lacks the funding and the boots on the ground to implement badly needed fuels reduction projects, Merkley said.

Year after year, fire suppression eats up more and more of the Forest Service’s budget and personnel. Between 1998 and 2016, the number of Forest Service fire personnel grew by over 6,000 employees. At the same time, the number of employees for other critical work — like planning timber sales, thinning projects, trail maintenance — decreased by 7,000. The result: Fewer resources for proactive forest management and a multi-million acre backlog of projects.

Merkley’s Wildfire-Resilient Communities Act would create economic opportunities in forest-dependent communities while reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires by:

  • Creating a $1 billion fund to provide stability and allow the Forest Service to increase the pace and scale of catastrophic wildfire reduction projects.
  • Empowering federal agencies to work with local communities to plan and prepare for wildfires.
  • Permanently reauthorizing the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, allowing more projects to receive funding in a given fiscal year.
  • Creating a County Stewardship Fund that would provide payments to counties equal to 25% of stewardship contract receipts on federal land within their counties.

“Through focused investments in forest restoration and community protection we can prepare our communities and landscapes for wildfires,” said Joseph Vaile, Executive Director of Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center. “Our forests were more adapted to fire before we cut down so many of the large, fire resistant trees. We replaced too many of our old growth forests with flammable second growth forests. We need to fund the kind of work that can restore our forests and help build more fire and climate resilient landscapes and communities, and Sen. Merkley’s bill would help us do that.”