Wildfires and Washington: How Congress Can Stop Catastrophe Before It Starts
Opinion: Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah)
Charred landscapes, torched buildings and the loss of property and life. These are the consequences of massive wildfires. Most Americans in the Eastern United States aren’t acquainted with this type of destruction. However, these scenes are all too familiar for those of us who live in the West.
Congress and the U.S. Forest Service have the opportunity now to stop catastrophic wildfires before they start. This is not some pie-in-the-sky hyperbole coming from Washington. It’s a realistic goal, achievable by using proven science to manage our country’s forests.
Wildfires are fierce, unpredictable and unforgiving, but they are also preventable. Proper forest management is key. The Forest Service is tasked with the big job of managing our forests, but it has had a lackluster record when it comes to preventing wildfires. Nearly 6 million acres were ravaged by fires last year, which is about the size of Maryland. We keep losing millions of acres each year because of defunct forest management. Lives and livelihoods are destroyed by these natural disasters, and our natural resources are being depleted.
While some believe an unfettered forest is progress, it’s really a recipe for greater disaster. Wildfires kill. They tear communities apart and obliterate local economies. Just look at the Carr fire in California, which is still burning. It has killed seven people and destroyed over 177,000 acres. Nature isn’t kind. We have an obligation to steward our forests so humans and forests flourish simultaneously.
The House has already taken bold, bipartisan steps in this direction. Last year, it passed the Resilient Federal Forests Act, introduced by my colleague Bruce Westerman, R-Ark. This bill gave the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management the tools they requested to limit catastrophic wildfires. Unfortunately, the Senate didn’t let this bill see the light of day, a recurring theme with the Senate.
In the 115th Congress, the House has passed more than 400 bills still stuck in the Senate because of arcane and ridiculous procedural rules. Meanwhile, the West continues to burn.
Congress still has time to do the right thing and enact real reforms. This year’s farm bill provides a vehicle for major policy changes. The conferees working on the farm bill must integrate active forest management practices into the overarching piece of legislation. These practices use techniques such as controlled burns and strategic thinning of overgrowth and dead trees so devastating fires are stopped before they start. Funding for forest rehabilitation projects is also extremely important. Scorched land won’t heal quickly by itself. Forest managers will need tools to help bring recovery to damaged forests. If implemented, these practices and funds will help keep our forests healthy and thriving.
The legislative clock is ticking as we enter election season. If we fail, the catastrophic wildfires will keep burning. We must not allow the sacrifice of American land and lives to continue simply because the Senate lacks the political will to do what is right. Meaningful forestry reform is within our grasp. Let’s get the job done and help our country’s forests thrive once again.
U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop represents Utah's 1st Congressional District and is the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources.
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