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The idea is so simple, and so obvious, that it’s hardly surprising Congress hasn’t acted on it.
The wildfires that have burned across hundreds of thousands of acres in Oregon this summer have revived one of U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden’s priorities over the past several years.
The Oregon Democrat, with backing from the state’s other senator, Democrat Jeff Merkley, and U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, has repeatedly tried to change the way the federal government pays to fight fires on public land.
Specifically, the lawmakers want the government to treat big blazes as it does other natural disasters such as hurricanes — by putting money into a separate account for that specific purpose.
The current budgeting system for firefighting is, to borrow Wyden’s apt adjective, “awful.”
Federal agencies, principally the U.S. Forest Service and BLM, frequently have to “borrow” money from their budgets to cover firefighting costs.
In a perversely ironic twist, this means the agencies often have less money to do work, such as thinning overcrowded forests, that can help reduce the size and severity of wildfires.
This creates a recurring cycle in which the government deals with the symptoms of the problem — the fires — but not one of its key sources — unhealthy forests. It’s roughly analogous to the government dealing with a river that frequently floods by buying a bunch of pumps rather than building a better system of levies.
We endorse the proposal to end what Wyden calls “fire borrowing.”
The Trump administration has been striving to reduce government spending, but when it comes to managing the nation’s hundreds of millions of acres of public land, one of America’s greatest resources, spending more to protect those vast expanses seems to us a worthwhile investment.
Moreover, it’s conceivable that over years and decades, a more concerted effort to reduce the fire danger will actually result in fewer blazes on public land, and a net savings to the government treasury.
Restoring forest health is not cheap, to be sure, in part because some of the necessary work, such as cutting small trees and lighting prescribed fires, doesn’t produce commercial products.
But the current situation hardly qualifies as a bargain, either.
The federal government has regularly spent more than $1 billion annually to fight fires over the past decade. And despite that expense, we continue to lose tens of millions of dollars in potential timber value, as well as the degradation of recreation areas.
From the Baker City Herald editorial board. The board consists of publisher Kari Borgen, editor Jayson Jacoby and reporter Chris Collins.