Guest opinion: Big government can help in the fight against wildfires — by getting out of the way
In the last decade, more than 68 million acres of land in the United States have been destroyed by wildfires. Last month, as we toured Utah’s 1st Congressional District together, we witnessed firsthand the aftermath of several recent wildfires ranging from the high Uintas to Parleys Canyon. While wildfires are a natural part of our environment, their increasing prevalence and rising intensity are jeopardizing forest, wildlife and human health and the safety of our communities.
Over 10 million acres burned in 2020 alone. The regional effects of wildfire are lopsided; of these 10 million acres, only 700,000 acres were in the eastern United States. In Utah alone, 329,735 acres were burned in 2020, a 256.9% increase from the prior year.
The rapid uptick in wildfire intensity is primarily due to forests being overstocked with fuel. This can be attributed to the lack of active management conducted on our federal lands. According to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), which manages 193 million acres across the country, 63 million acres of that total face a high risk of wildfires. In 2020, 70% of the nationwide acreage that burned was on federal lands, most of which was managed by USFS. Despite the major threat posed by wildfires, USFS only carries out 2% of needed fuel reduction treatments per year. This number is abysmally low because of a mix of bureaucratic red tape and excessive litigation.
This issue was highlighted during a recent House Natural Resources Committee hearing. According to Dr. Dave Daley, a rancher from Butte County, California, “overzealous” policies have led to a lack of land management, resulting in ecosystems defined by their susceptibility to fires. In discussing some of these aggressive policies, the Property and Environment Research Center has stated that “environmental regulations can have the unintended effect of discouraging environmentally beneficial actions, including those to restore forests and reduce fire risk.”
For example, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is well-intentioned policy that has impeded management efforts by requiring agencies to document the expected environmental impact of their actions. This has proven burdensome in many cases, and the average approval process for a NEPA permit is three years. Big government has clearly become a major hurdle in the fight against wildfires.
While our changing climate is certainly a part of the larger conversation, Democrats and extreme climate activists have been quick to ignore federal policy’s impact on exacerbating wildfires. Instead of complicating matters and getting in the way, the federal government needs to get into the business of assisting the local leaders who can best address the needs of their communities. For that reason, we crafted legislation that will do just that. The FIRESHEDS Act and the Resilient Federal Forest Act will reduce red tape and empower leaders.
Rep. Moore’s FIRESHEDS Act would give our land managers the tools they need to prevent, mitigate and respond to wildfires. Specifically, it would allow for the establishment of fireshed management areas, created in close coordination with state governors, that allow landscape-scale fireshed areas within a state to be managed to reduce threats to public health, critical infrastructure, wildlife habitats and watersheds. In addition, the bill would speed up environmental reviews so local land managers can conduct fuel reduction and prescribed fires.
Without sacrificing environmental protections, Ranking Member Westerman’s Resilient Federal Forests Act would streamline regulations surrounding forest management. It would accelerate environmental reviews of projects for the removal of dead trees and pay for reforestation after large wildfires and require an Environmental Assessment for a reforestation project.
The conservative mantra of limited, local government has guided our nation through unthinkable challenges. Today, the same principles can lead us toward solutions on wildfire management. We need to put more tools in the hands of local leaders and reduce bureaucratic hurdles to protect our forests and communities. We are proud to be leading on this effort and will continue to work with our Natural Resources Committee colleagues to empower local leaders as they address our wildfire crises.
Blake Moore represents the 1st Congressional District, which includes Summit County, and is a member of the House Committee on Natural Resources. Bruce Westerman, of Arkansas, is the ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources.
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