Accounts from recent catastrophic wildfires in Northern California depict a terrifying scene:
“Hurtling down a mile-long dirt driveway, the wildfire closing in, Eli Monroe pulled to a stop at a crossroads. He sat for a moment with his girlfriend, his parents in the car behind them, deciding which way to turn on Tomki Road.”
The article, titled, “Wildfire Victims Had Only Seconds to Make Fateful Choices,” is as horrifying as it sounds. This family, pursued by wildfires unnaturally fast and hot, had to make a fateful choice. Thankfully, they lived to tell the tale.
Their story, one of many over the past few weeks, should strike a human chord. It also suggests a lesson to policymakers in Washington. Our position, though not identical, is analogous. Congress too is coming to a crossroads in our national forest and fire policy. The choice we make – like Eli’s – will carry fateful implications. Lives and livelihoods hang in the balance.
We have two paths open to us: the status quo is one; a sustainable, scientifically proven solution is the other. In one direction, “flames [lick] the roadside,” as they did for Eli; the other direction is lined with healthy, well-managed forests, rather than ticking time bombs waiting to go up in smoke.
Do we continue to merely throw money at a systemic problem, hoping it will somehow solve the underlying cause, or do we take the fork in the road, and start attacking the root of the dysfunction?
National attention is rightly focused on California, but uncontrollable wildfires rage every year on federal lands throughout almost every state in the West. Every year these fires constitute emergencies, and charred communities certainly deserve the funding and resources they need to combat them.
However, merely extending fire-fighting funding without addressing what got us here in the first place would be an abdication of our duty. It would be like driving a car headlong into the “flames [that lick] the roadside.”
Catastrophic wildfires differ from other natural disasters (like hurricanes) in one important respect: they can be contained and even prevented. We can affect the extent to which they ruin lives. The only way to permanently reassert that control, however, is to prioritize fire prevention, not simply fire suppression.
Forest management is the indispensable second half of the puzzle. It is no longer debatable that proactive management — prescribed burns, salvaging of dead trees, responsible timber harvesting, among other prescriptions — reduce wildfire severity. According to the Forest Service, 90 percent of fuel management treatments reduce wildfire intensity, allowing better and less costly control and suppression by firefighters.
“Prevention is the best medicine.” “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” These adages are usually applied to human health. They are just as truthfully applied to forest health.
Unfortunately, statutes originally intended to protect the environment, such as the National Environmental Policy Act, are now working against those ends. An unholy combination of activist litigation designed to manipulate policy and bureaucratic inefficiency have resulted in bloated environmental reviews that often take as much as a half a decade to complete; such analyses were designed to take a few months.
Thousands of lawsuits have been filed by these groups to prevent the Forest Service from pursuing routine thinning and restoration projects. As more and more time and money are consumed by regulatory analysis and court battles, scarce agency resources are expended and fewer acres of high-risk forest lands are treated.
As the chief of the U.S. Forest Service under President Obama put it, “[i]f we can find a way to address the concerns that drive litigation, we can increase the pace and scale of the work that needs to be done.”
This week, the House will consider the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017. The bill, developed in conjunction with Forest Service leadership under the past two administrations, provides a new path forward. It provides the agency with streamlined environmental review authorities to expand vegetation management and fuel reduction projects. These are tools that can be used immediately to restore forest resiliency and protect communities.
Whether Congress passes the Resilient Federal Forests Act as a stand-alone bill or includes similar provisions in a future legislative package, we must enact reforms to increase the pace and scale of hazardous fuel reduction. Hurling money at the flames without management reforms accomplishes nothing more than assuaging our own guilty consciences.
To my colleagues in Congress: like Eli Monroe, we have come to a crossroads. We can continue driving down a path of destruction, or we can choose a better way and begin preventing uncontrollable fires from starting in the first place. This is an emergency, and we must act quickly, but that does not mean we cannot act prudently.
In doing so, we will prevent the loss of human life, improve the environment and protect taxpayers. Anything less is to wash our hands of more preventable tragedies.
Bishop represents Utah’s 1st District and is chairman of the Natural Resources Committee.