Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley is hardly the first politician to take up the challenge of reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires in publicly owned western forests that experts say are overcrowded and unhealthy.

Merkley’s Senate colleague, Ron Wyden, along with another member of Oregon’s congressional delegation, Rep. Greg Walden, have also sponsored bills intended to accelerate thinning projects, prescribed burning and other work intended to make forests more resilient and less susceptible to fires.

Progress toward this important but ambitious goal has been sluggish, according to the Forest Service.

The agency acknowledges as much in a statement regarding the Blue Mountains Forest Resiliency project, which targets half a million acres for restoration on the Wallowa-Whitman, Umatilla and Ochoco national forests.

“Across the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon and Washington, more than 2.3 million acres of dry forests have become overcrowded and vulnerable to unusual outbreaks of insects, diseases and wildfires,” according to the Forest Service. “The current pace of active forest restoration is not keeping pace with forest growth. Every year we fall farther behind.”

Congress has already taken one significant step this year toward reversing, or at least slowing, that trend.

This spring lawmakers passed a bill that ends the practice known as “fire borrowing,” in which the Forest Service and other federal agencies divert money intended to do work such as forest thinning to instead cover the government’s annual bills, often exceeding $1 billion, to fight wildfires.

Which is akin to spending money on root canals instead of fluoride toothpaste.

Now Merkley wants to set up a $1 billion fund that the Forest Service could use for forest projects. He hopes the Senate will deliberate on the bill after the Nov. 6 election.

We support Merkley’s proposal.

A billion dollars is a considerable sum, but it’s hardly an overwhelming one when you consider the scale of the problem as the Forest Service noted with its estimate of “more than 2.3 million acres” that could benefit from thinning and the reintroduction of fire.

A local project would be an excellent place to spend some of the dollars Merkley hopes to secure.

Baker City’s watershed, a 10,000-acre swatch of national forest in the Elkhorn Mountains about 10 miles west of town, probably is overdue, based on fire history, for a large blaze, according to a 1990s study by fire experts.

City officials, led by councilor Arvid Andersen, and Forest Service officials have discussed ways to potentially reduce the fire risk in the watershed, from which the city obtains its drinking water.

Merkley’s bill could make money available to make progress toward that vital goal.

From the Baker City Herald editorial board. The board consists of editor Jayson Jacoby and reporter Chris Collins.

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