It’s definitely time to grow better forest policies

Thinning and maintenance are clearly needed.

It’s good to see some of the West’s U.S. senators working across the political aisle in hopes of developing better forest management strategies in light of this summer’s disastrous wildfires.

As reported by the Seattle Times, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., last Thursday took testimony from wildfire specialists “and pledged bipartisan action to boost forest-thinning and controlled burns — and an end to the raiding of the U.S. Forest Service’s fire-prevention budget.”

A major revamping of forest planning is timely. Though still sparsely populated by global standards, Pacific Northwest forests are increasingly interspersed with housing, at the same time that climatic changes result in tinderbox-like conditions that are consuming thousands of acres this summer. Some fires will almost certainly smolder until heavy winter rains begin, representing a continuing risk they might jump beyond containment measures.

Cantwell is working on a law to stop “fire-borrowing,” a federal budget practice that shortchanges fire prevention and preparation in favor of other spending priorities. Her proposals include upgrading the U.S. Forest Service’s antiquated airtanker fleet, the planes that can be deployed to make rapid and meaningful progress in blocking the path of fires approaching homes and other valuable assets.

Barrasso, a former television M.D. who seemed to shed his analytical scientific mind once ensconced in the Senate, is at least partially disposed toward working on a forest-management strategy that doesn’t rely on a return to discredited 20th century industrial forestry approaches.

Thinning and maintenance are clearly needed. A forestry expert from Western Washington University testified to the senators that there is a 400-million-acre backlog — an area larger than Alaska — of forestland that needs to be thinned and have branches and other fuels removed that contribute to big fires. He cautioned, however, “We can’t cut our way out of this.”

Peter Goldmark, Washington state’s elected commissioner of public lands, commented on a need to modernize fire-detection — using airplane flyovers, satellites or drones to catch fires when they are still small enough to quickly snuff out. Such rapid, targeted response could have saved lives and averted vast property damage this summer.

Residents of rural areas are tired of having their homelands be under-funded, involuntary parks by urban people who have an attachment to the idea of wilderness, but no understanding of the complex economic and scientific factors at play in managing forests that are reasonably safe, functional and productive. As communities in Oregon and Washington move past the immediate crises of controlling this summer’s wildfires, the positive next steps should revolve around involving forestland residents in setting the stage for preempting future conflagrations.

Congress can play a valuable role in this by making sure forest money is applied to forest issues, and by helping the West’s diverse constituencies find long-range ways to work together toward forest health.