Wildfires are a political problem in the states, not just D.C.


The Rim Fire and other wildfires across the West this summer are once again pushing federal forest mismanagement and the need for forest thinning into the spotlight. The Rim Fire, for one, has burned 246,000 acres and is now Calfornia’s third largest wildfire ever.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last week tried to defend the feds’ forest management, but his comments were overshadowed by the sheer number and intensity of the fires burning around the country. Even environmental groups have admitted there is a problem, though they differ on solutions.

Vilsack’s comments come as about 50 major wildfires continue to burn throughout the West. Many of them are on U.S. Forest Service land, including the nearly 300-square-mile Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, which has quickly grown into one of the largest wildfires in California history.

The fires have displaced or killed thousands of head of cattle, burned up federal grazing allotments and devastated timberland, prompting many ranchers and timber operators to call for more thinning of forests to reduce fires’ catastrophic effects.

For instance, ranchers suffering significant cattle losses and more than 280,000 acres of burned-out grazing land in the rugged Boise National Forest in Idaho voiced frustration last week with the Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management. They said the government won’t allow grazing and timber cuts, so it just burns.

The temperature of the Rim Fire is so extreme that many experts say parts of the forest may never grow back. Unlike most wildfires, the Rim Fire appears to have burned away underground seeds and roots that would be needed for regeneration.

What is sometimes overlooked, however, in the forest fire debate is that forest management isn’t just a federal issue – it’s also an issue in each Western state. In Oregon, the cost of fighting fires this year is approaching a record high, and in Washington, firefighting costs are also rising.

The Olympian’s editorial board this week called out the Washington Legislature for underfunding the state Department of Natural Resources’ budget for wildfire prevention, including forest thinning.

Peter Goldmark, state commissioner of public lands, is trying to upgrade forest management practices to keep pace with forest growth and the long-term effects of climate change. It’s a shame that the Legislature and the U.S. Forest Service are independently thwarting his efforts.

The state Department of Natural Resources, which Goldmark manages, initially requested $20 million this year from the Legislature for restorative forest health programs. The DNR later pared its request down to $10 million, and legislators only appropriated $4 million.

That small amount won’t go far and represents the short-term thinking Goldmark is trying to change. With climatologists predicting the Northwest will warm faster than other regions over the next 40 or more years, the forest fire threat will increase.

The DNR is responsible for forests on about 30 percent of the state’s total landscape. About half of that is state land on which the agency can apply healthy forest management practices, such as thinning trees to provide wider spacing, removing decaying material on the forest floor that fuel fires and making forests more resistant to insect damage.

But it needs funding to provide education and incentives, such as a 50 percent cost-sharing program to encourage private landowners to fire proof their properties. Reducing the potential for large forest fires costs far less than suppressing a fire once it’s started.

The Olympian added that the feds are also making the problem worse. “The U.S. Forest Service is the largest landowner in Washington and has effectively abandoned all active forest management practices since the spotted owl controversy in the 1990s.”

Perhaps the biggest sign of hope on the federal level is that both parties in Congress seem to want to move forward on significant reform of forest management. The Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act in the House and Sen. Ron Wyden’s proposal in the Senate would likely increase forest thinning and make federal forests healthier. Whether the final legislation would improve forest management enough to stem the increase in wildfires remains to be seen.