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Home arrow Opinion arrow Editorials arrow Wake up, Congress, and smell the ashes

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Wake up, Congress, and smell the ashes

Pine beetles and other tree-killing insects don’t as a rule make much noise.

But even their stealthy munching seems boisterous compared with Congress’ attitude toward the nation’s sickly federal forests.

This troubling trend persists even as millions of acres of western forest burn each summer. In many cases these fires burn hotter, and spread faster, than historic blazes did because forests are more crowded, and less healthy, than they used to be.

Members of Oregon’s delegation have tried to roust their colleagues by touting the job-creating potential of accelerating the existing campaign to restore public forests, as well as the ecological benefits, but to little avail.

Greg Walden, for instance, the lone Republican among the Oregon contingent, has been pushing a pair of bills since late 2009.

One is designed to expedite the cutting of small, low-value trees in dense stands most vulnerable to fires.

The other, which was introduced by Walden’s fellow Oregon lawmaker, Democratic representative Kurt Schrader, promotes the fledgling biomass industry. The basic idea is to collect the trees cut during thinning projects and burn them to supply electricity and heat to schools, hospitals and other buildings. Schrader’s bill would offer $100 million in interest-free loans for biomass projects.

Neither Walden’s bill nor Schrader’s has gotten so much as a hearing.

Oregon’s senior Senator, Ron Wyden, has fared slightly better with his heavily publicized bill proposing an increase in logging on federal forests east of the Cascades in Oregon, with the aforementioned stunted trees as the main target for the saws.

Wyden’s bill at least has had a hearing.

But then he’s chairman of the subcommittee that discussed the bill — almost four months ago. Walden, as a member of the minority party, has no gavel to wield.

None of the three bills, though, seems likely to become law any time soon.

Certainly not before the coming fire season has had its way with the West, in any case.

This nearly complete absence of interest in Washington, D.C., for the forest legislation coming from Oregon confounds us because none of the bills could reasonably be described as extreme.

None of the legislation aims to revive the clearcutting heyday of the 1970s and ’80s.

Which is hardly surprising, since we wouldn’t expect either of the Democrats, Wyden and Schrader, to lend his name and political reputation to any proposal likely to irritate their party’s environmentally conscious constituency.

And contrary to the implications of these bills’ less thoughtful critics, none would plunder the existing laws that, among other things, protect wilderness, require the Forest Service and BLM to study the environmental effects of proposed logging, and allow citizens to challenge projects either through appeals or lawsuits.

Walden’s bill is supposed to make it easier for the agencies to actually get the trees cut.

It would, for instance, allow agencies, when they’re designing a logging project, to analyze a single strategy, and compare its effects to what would happen if the logging isn’t done.

Now, by contrast, the studies of most logging projects involve three more strategies, some scarcely different from another, which explains why such studies often run into novel length.

Granted, wildfires don’t have the reach, environmentally speaking, of a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

But blazes can be pretty devastating too.

Oil’s been gushing into the Gulf for just a couple of months.

Fires, though, have been ravaging publicly owned forests in Oregon and other western states for more than two decades.

Congress can’t pretend it didn’t see this disaster coming. And lawmakers shouldn’t continue to ignore the well-crafted bills that seek to stem the tide.

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