After months of smoke-filled skies, the blanket of winter has returned to the northern Rockies. Our stunning vistas are once again visible. 2017 was a record-breaking fire season here in Montana, as 141 wildfires burned across our state – affecting over 1 million acres. Montanans were evacuated, homes were lost, businesses were hurt, and federal and state budgets were severely impacted.
However, Montanans are a resilient bunch, and we rolled up our sleeves and helped one another. Our elected officials were there with us, providing help and taking an interest in what was happening to our forests and our communities. While the fires burned, everyone stood together. Yet as the smoke cleared, it became easier to assign blame and look for silver bullets to solve the problem.
We traveled to Washington, D.C. a couple weeks ago and were surprised to see Congress proposing new laws to reform forest management faster than one can assign them a bill number. While we appreciate the effort, this reactive frenzy of bill drafting is not in the best interest of our forests or Montanans. Most of the current bills lack bipartisan support and are likely to hurt – not help – our forests and communities. Undermining bedrock environmental laws, silencing public opinion, and weakening accountability by limiting public engagement and review are just a few of the potential outcomes of the proposed legislation.
There is one piece of legislation that will help make our forests more sustainable, fire resistant and adaptable to the changing climate: the bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act. More intense wildfires, a longer wildfire season and people moving into fire-prone areas are driving up firefighting costs. These increasing costs are chipping away at other public lands programs, forcing agencies to take funding from other programs such as forest restoration, recreation, trails, and land use planning.
Have you noticed reduced levels of maintenance and public service on your national forest? We sure have. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (WDFA) fixes that problem by stabilizing suppression funding and funding the 1-2 percent of costly wildfires as we do earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes: as national disasters. This will significantly reduce the need to borrow funds and allow more stable budgeting for fire prevention, forest restoration, and other programs. Unfortunately, efforts in Congress to include more controversial proposals for changing forest management are holding hostage the solutions – like WDFA – that everyone agrees on.
As we look over the areas that were shrouded in smoke all summer, we see a significantly changed landscape. It is not 1 million acres of blackened trees but a mosaic of burned, unburned and partially burned forest and grasslands – closer to what we suspect the landscape looked like prior to man’s intervention with fire suppression, early logging and grazing. This landscape raises a lot of questions with no simple answers. Would more logging have slowed the rate of spread? Would more prescribed burning have decreased fire intensity? Where does climate change and the record setting drought fit in? All these questions should be answered in a collaborative manner with professional resource managers, the timber industry, conservation groups, business owners, ranchers, outfitters, recreationists and many more.
For years, Montanans have been meeting at kitchen tables across the state to hammer out common sense solutions to tough issues. When we need help from Congress, we will be the first to ask. We have asked for a fix to the wildfire funding issue, and they have responded. Let’s get that bill passed and let the more complex issues concerning forest management reforms be worked out across the table and over a cup of coffee.
Tom Puchlerz is a retired biologist with the U.S. Forest Service living in Stevensville; Paul Roos is a longtime fishing guide and outfitter living in Lincoln.