The 2017 wild fire season has drawn to a close in Wyoming and in most of our country. Now is a good time to begin assessing what the fire season was, and what opportunities may exist to influence wildfires in the future through proactive efforts like forest policy and on-the-ground forest management.
While we were fortunate here in Wyoming to have a somewhat moderate fire season this year, nationally we saw over 9 million acres burn according the National Interagency Fire Center. At a price tag of more than $2.4 billion so far, the federal government has spent more money fighting wildfires nationally this year than any other wildfire season on record.
Not all wildfires are bad or need to be put out. When fire is a systematic part of the landscape, it can actually help produce net resource benefits by cycling nutrients and removing fuels. This occurs when fires are able to burn at lower intensities or in some instances, are allowed to burn in backcountry areas as a way to manage these areas that otherwise may not have any management, such as roadless or wilderness areas.
However, when forests become overstocked with too many trees, they approach unsustainable conditions and wildfires can rage out of control and become catastrophic, destroying homes and communities, harming natural and cultural resources and threatening human lives. Additional negative impacts from catastrophic wildfire can include the loss of healthy forests along with rural communities and the associated jobs and forest products they provide. Water quality and wildlife habitat can also be negatively impacted by these catastrophic wildfires.
There are regulatory reforms that can be helpful in addressing this challenge including expansion of Good Neighbor Authority and timelier implementation of NEPA completed projects. But we need to add to this solid, well-crafted legislation that will, for example, encourage federal managers to consult their state’s Forest Action Plan (we have a strong one in Wyoming) and work closely with State Foresters and the forest products industry to help ensure state and federal resources are focused on the highest priorities that yield productive results.
As Congress considers options for funding active forest management – including fire suppression, thinning, prescribed fire and perhaps disaster funding — lawmakers might also consider providing further funding for fire suppression.
When the U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior do their annual budgeting, they have to plan for costs based on past fire seasons and so does the State of Wyoming. But each new season is proving to be anything but average. For example, more than 52,000 fires have burned so far this year — greater than each of the last five years for that same period.
Fighting these fires is draining agency budgets — money that might better go toward making sure our country’s forests are healthy and provide the benefits expected of our nation’s public lands. The savings could go to conservation work — such as restoring forests and thinning dense stands — that help reduce the risk of fire in the first place.
It’s heartening to see that both chambers of Congress are currently considering legislation that could help solve the challenges of managing for healthy forests and fighting fires. The Senate this fall introduced the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, and the House of Representatives introduced a similar bill this past summer. The Senate also added a fire-funding solution to a flood insurance bill. And Wyoming’s Senator John Barrasso has taken the lead in holding hearings on the ‘Wildfire Prevention and Mitigation Act of 2017’. So there are solutions on the table that are being actively considered by every member of Congress.
Together, we agree comprehensive solutions and approaches are in everyone’s best interest. We are encouraged to see expert stakeholders come together to help address the challenge including the National Association of State Foresters and the Federal Forest Resource Coalition. We also see a broad coalition of others pulling together which demonstrates the power of coalition building to support comprehensive solutions for managing towards healthy forests and a wildfire funding fix.
We pledge to continue to work with Congress as they work to pass a solution to this problem. We also are eager to work with coalition builders to make sure we keep our forests healthy and to help prevent those damaging fires from happening in the first place. Good policy and common sense solutions are what we are about in Wyoming and now is a great time to put those values into action.