WASHINGTON, D.C. — Although he believes "We made some pretty good progress earlier this year," Rep. Greg Walden said he remains focused on efforts to reduce catastrophic forest fires and the resulting unhealthy air quality.
"You've got to change forest policy or a lot of towns are going to look like Paradise," he said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office., referring to the massive wildfire earlier this year that reduced the northern California town to ashes. "We've made progress but there is a lot more to do."
Walden, R-Hood River, said the Forest Service's "Good Neighbor" program, which allows states to perform watershed restoration and forest management services on National Forest lands, is a positive action. He called it an example of some of "the most significant reforms to federal forest policy in more than a decade."
Other reforms signed into law earlier this year include streamlining authorities for rapid implementation for wildfire resiliency and hazardous fuels reduction projects, and working to eliminate fire borrowing to "help end the vicious cycle of depleting resources for fire prevention to pay for fire suppression, which increases the risk of catastrophic wildfires year after year."
In addition, he said the legislation expands Healthy Forest Restoration Act authority for fuel and fire break projects, and allow the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to offer stewardship contracts with a 20-year term.
Earlier this year — before Wednesday's approval of the $400 billion Farm Bill, which provides funding for conservation programs, agricultural subsidies and food aid and is expected to be signed by President Donald Trump — Walden sent a letter to the negotiating committee emphasizing provisions he said are important in preventing and fighting forest fires.
"The West is burning," he wrote. "Lives have been tragically lost. Homes and other property have been destroyed. Smoke is choking our skies, leaving residents of southern Oregon and elsewhere with the worst air quality in the nation. It does not have to be this way. As you finalize the Farm Bill in 2018, I urge you to include the important forest management tools included in the House bill to make needed steps toward preventing these fires into the future."
In the letter, Walden said "years of poor management have left our federal forests overgrown and at risk of these unnaturally catastrophic fires." He noted John Bailey, an Oregon State University professor, told the House Energy and Commerce Committee that in some areas of eastern Oregon there are nearly 1,000 trees per acre on land that historically had 20 trees per acre.
"Across the West, these overstocked tree stands fuel the catastrophic fires we see each summer," Walden wrote. "Active management that thins out these forest stands and removes this fuel reduces the threat of fire, smoke, and other emissions. A recent study in California by The Nature Conservancy, Forest Service and others found that fuels projects can reduce the size and intensity of fire up to 70 percent. These projects also reduce carbon emissions from the fire by up to 85 percent."
In the letter, and during the interview, he said "red tape and litigation from outside special interest groups hampers land managers’ ability to implement these needed forest management projects." According to Walden, "When fire does strike, we (need to) ensure the Forest Service and BLM can remove the burned, dead trees while they still have value and replant to restore our forests for the next generation. Just like what happens on private lands across Oregon."
During the interview Walden also expressed concern because fires are spreading from forests to urban areas, cautioning, "Who knows what's in that smoke. It's pretty toxic stuff." He said thousands of people die annually from toxic smoke because it "stays in the air longer after a fire," and said he uses that argument when discussing fire and air quality concerns with other legislators
He believes wildfires contribute to climate change, noting, "You can see it. I think humans contribute to it. The question is how do you deal with it." Walden noted the Klamath Basin and Rogue Valley this year experienced several days of the world's worst air quality — "It was miserable."
In advocating for thinning and the quick removal of salvageable trees after fires, he said benefits include creating an environment where "snow will actually hit and ground and stay in the snowpack. ... We don't have to have the incredible snowloads.
Walden also said Klamath Basin issues remain difficult but credited ongoing efforts by Alan Mikkelsen, senior advisor to outgoing Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke on water issues. "I think he (Mikkelsen) will tell you it's the toughest one (issue) he's been involved with."
Walden said he believes recent legislation that provides up to $10 million annually in emergency assistance to farmers impacted by droughts and loss of water to tribes will help in coming years.
"They're the watermaster for the Upper Basin," he said, referring to the Klamath Tribes, which holds primary water rights in the upper basin on water flowing into Upper Klamath Lake."
He praised Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., for the recent "sucker summit," "which was very productive." Walden toured the facility raising native sucker fish, noting, "There are still a lot of environmental questions about the suckers."