The best time to reduce the risk of a big wildfire in Baker City’s watershed was probably several decades ago.
Which is not to say it’s too late.
Despite the Forest Service’s hands-off approach to the 10,000 acres in the Elkhorn Mountains through which the city’s drinking water flows — not that a heavy-handed approach would be an improvement, to be sure — the watershed has avoided the fiery disaster that could leave the city without a safe water supply.
And a bill likely to exceed $15 million or $20 million to fix the problem.
Managing the watershed is a challenge.
It is not a place where conventional commercial forestry, designed to maximize the production of board-feet of timber, makes sense. One reason the streams and springs continue to produce clear water is that the forests remain intact, able to absorb torrential rains and the spring runoff without turning into muddy torrents unfit for drinking or much else.
But those forests, as forests inevitably will, have aged and, in places, deteriorated, the victims of insects and disease and drought. A study in the 1990s by fire experts found that the area probably is overdue, statistically, for a big blaze.
We can’t eliminate that risk, of course.
But we can reduce it with well-conceived, and carefully executed, thinning of some of the densest, least healthy and most fire-prone parts of the watershed.
And in one sense this might be the ideal time to pursue that strategy.
Congress this spring at long last ended the practice known as “fire borrowing.” That refers to the Forest Service and other federal agencies diverting money earmarked for other work — including the sorts of thinning projects envisioned for the watershed — to pay the billion-dollar annual tabs to fight wildfires.
To put it another way, agencies have struggled to deal with the problems that contribute to massive blazes because they were trying to put out... massive blazes.
The bill that passed this year won’t immediately fix the problem. But by 2020 the federal government will set aside $2 billion annually, as an emergency fund, to fight the bigger fires. In theory that should make more money available for thinning projects.
Nor is that the only way Congress can help in this endeavor.
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Greg Walden last week sent a letter to the Forest Service’s regional office in Portland advocating for Baker City’s watershed to be a priority for some of those dollars.
The threat facing the watershed is hardly of recent origin. In 1993 the Forest Service and city sponsored a tour of the watershed during which officials cited the same concerns that their successors talk about today.
We hope the combination of congressional support — and money — will yield more tangible results in the future than we’ve seen in the past.
From the Baker City Herald editorial board. The board consists of editor Jayson Jacoby and reporter Chris Collins.