Rep. Bruce Westerman: Wildfires ravage the US every year. They don't have to

I’ve seen firsthand that scientific, commonsense forest management works.

Across the West, wildfires are raging. They have already tragically claimed at least 26 lives and displaced thousands more.

As I write this, dozens of American cities are dealing with the world’s worst air quality, suffering through a thick haze of post-apocalyptic smoke.

Unfortunately, this is nothing new. Six million acres have burned to date. In 2018, it was 7 million. In 2017, it was 8 million. 2015, nearly 9 million.

Two factors are driving these infernos: rising temperatures and widespread, systemic mismanagement of our forests.

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Unfortunately, Congress continues arguing about the cause without ever implementing a solution. Mitigating climate change is a decades-long issue we should all be working on, but progress to that goal shouldn’t impede immediate solutions.

In fact, the only way we can get to that goal is to start now, managing our forests properly and making them healthy and resilient.

I’ve dedicated much of my career to studying forestry, and I’ve seen firsthand that scientific, commonsense forest management works.

I’m a professional engineer and licensed forester, and I currently represent one of the most heavily forested congressional districts in America.

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I’ve dedicated much of my career to studying forestry, and I’ve seen firsthand that scientific, commonsense forest management works.

If we gave land managers more resources to curb pests, thin trees, clear brush and more, we could begin to mitigate the severity of wildfires.

Why don’t we?

In short, because Democrats refuse to come to the table and negotiate on forestry reform. As a result, Congress continues to fiddle while the West burns.

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During my time as a congressman, I’ve introduced bills like the Resilient Federal Forests Act and the Trillion Trees Act, legislation that promotes healthy forests via scientific management.

Yet when I try to engage with my Democratic colleagues on these issues, I hear the same refrains.

“It’s too little too late.” “We don’t have time to make small changes.” “We need sweeping reforms like the Green New Deal.”

Large-scale environmental changes have their time and place, but that doesn’t negate the fact that we need fast, reliable changes to forest management now.

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As temperatures rise and wildfire threats increase, we should immediately take an all-hands-on-deck approach to mitigate wildfire damage in critical infrastructure areas.

Democrats talk a lot about needing green solutions and infrastructure to withstand climate change, and that’s precisely what I’m trying to accomplish.

We are at a tipping point, and there are four major areas where large-scale, judicious forest management should be happening 24/7: Wildland-Urban Interfaces (WUIs), transportation corridors, transmission corridors and critical watersheds.

Every year, more people move into WUIs, and you may remember that the Camp Fire ignited along a Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) transmission line. These are exactly the kinds of areas we need to triage in order to mitigate wildfire damage.

What might that forest management entail? Let me first make this clear: I'm not proposing clear-cutting. I’m proposing we use site-specific management prescriptions that meet the timber stand and landscape criteria.

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It’s called forest restoration, using tools like thinning from below, where you remove the lower-quality trees and tender and use cyclical, low-intensity fires to control the underbrush.

It actually makes the residual trees healthier and more resistant to insects, disease and fire. This also results in better wildlife habitats, more plant and animal diversity and cleaner watersheds.

On top of all that, these forests have a distinct, park-like beauty that more closely resembles how Native Americans managed timberland.

Because forests are dynamic, growing ecosystems that are in constant flux, a decision to “do nothing” is still a management decision. More often than not, it is a bad decision, but it is a decision that, when made, turns overall management to nature.

Nature is harsh. Her tools are insects, disease, wind, lightning and wildfire, unleashed with an insatiable desire to restore an elusive balance.

Every year we delay and “do nothing” means another year of lost lives, destroyed property and billions of dollars of damage, not to mention the smoke releasing millions of pounds of carbon into the atmosphere.

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Scientific evidence shows that healthy, resilient forests are achieved through sound management, yet we are still doing nothing but loving our trees to death.

We have all the tools to mitigate wildfire severity. We just have to use them in a big way with a bold vision.

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