Oregonians have faced some of the worst fires in our state’s history this year. We have watched in shock as every day comes with more smoke and reports of new fires. With arrival of the first fall rains, we can and should turn our attention to the recovery efforts after the fires.
Perhaps the fire that has best summed up the season for many has been the Eagle Creek fire in the Columbia Gorge – which is burning just miles from my home in Hood River. I was on the ground recently meeting with the brave men and women who are working tirelessly to extinguish the blaze and begin the recovery.
They face a forest landscape with charred trees, damaged trails, and a National Scenic Area that’s no longer so scenic for those of us who live here and the millions that come to recreate here.
That’s why I’ve introduced the Scenic Columbia Gorge Restoration Act, to provide the Forest Service with streamlined authorities to clean up after the fire and replant to restore the beauty and recreational opportunities we all enjoy. Specifically, this legislation would create an expedited timeline for restoration and reforestation project planning and implementation.
It would also ensure that the Forest Service can take priority action to protect municipal watersheds, key viewing areas, and other critical infrastructure in the Gorge.
It’s essential that we all work together to stabilize the slopes and soils, minimize the erosion and get about the business of restoring this amazing area.
While the Eagle Creek and Indian Creek fires threatened communities, stopped rail, barge and freeway traffic – in addition to scorching about 50,000 acres – other parts of our great state suffered similar hardship. The Chetco Bar, Milli, or any one of the other 17 active fires left people choking from smoke and organizers forced to cancel iconic Oregon events from plays at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival to Cycle Oregon.
Between August 18 and September 8, people in Sisters had only one day when the Air Quality Index was above “Unhealthy.” That day was “Moderate.” Six days were “Very Unhealthy” and three were “Hazardous.” Even Portlanders had to gag on the smoke this summer.
It doesn’t have to be this way. That’s why for the fifth time in five years, the House is moving forward with legislation I helped craft – the Resilient Federal Forests Act – to fix federal forest management and help reduce the risk of wildfire.
Preventative management before a fire is important to helping our firefighters do their job when fires do start.
It’s more than four times cheaper to reduce the fuel loads before a fire than to pay to put them out. And minimizing emissions from wildfires can help reduce greenhouse gases and other toxins.
Equally important is the work done after a fire, to clean up, restore and replant – just like we do for any other natural disaster. Green, growing, healthy trees are our state’s lungs that can reduce CO2 and improve soil stabilization, restore habitat and give us back the green forests we all cherish.
The fires across Oregon are a clear sign that the status quo of forest management is not working. They highlight the problems we face from a lack of management and ever building fuel loads.
It is past time for a change in how our federal forests are managed and how we clean up after disastrous fires.
We have a new opportunity to fix the problem and help Mother Nature, too. It’s our generation’s time to act.
— U.S. Rep. Greg Walden serves the Second Congressional District, which encompasses Wasco County and 19 others in Oregon.