The Biden administration plans to spend $3 billion on a new wildfire management plan that could help reduce catastrophic wildfire in high-risk areas in Oregon.
Advocates say the funding will create jobs in the timber industry and reinvigorate rural communities, but critics say the plan doesn’t bring anything new to the table and relies too heavily on logging.
The 10-year plan announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Tuesday would pay for more prescribed burning, selective logging, and removal of dead trees and vegetation in areas at high risk of wildfires.
The funds will come from the newly adopted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Federal agencies will work with states, tribes, local communities and private landowners to determine which areas are most vulnerable to wildfires and develop wildfire prevention plans.
In Oregon, the highest fire risk areas are in Southern Oregon, the Cascade Range and the Columbia River Gorge where there are large, forested landscapes near communities with a high likelihood of ignition. Those areas will get top priority under the new federal plan.
Liz Merah, a spokesperson for Gov. Kate Brown, said the plan complements efforts already underway in Oregon. Through Senate Bill 762, Oregon is allocating $220 million to improving wildfire preparedness in the state.
Currently, the Forest Service treats about 2 million to 3 million acres per year with prescribed burns and selective logging to remove trees and brush that are most likely to burn. The new plan would greatly expand that acreage to treat an additional 50 million acres over the next 10 years.
Matt Donegan, who chaired Gov. Brown’s Wildfire Response Council, said right now the nation is seeing the consequences of not doing enough prescribed burning or enough to protect communities and forests.
“The time has come to move past theories and future planning and to address things now because we are now in the era of climate change and we have to react to that very quickly,” Donegan said.
As wildfires are becoming more catastrophic with climate change, the number of acres burned each year and the number of homes and structures destroyed are increasing rapidly. According to the U.S. Forest Service, four times more structures were destroyed in wildfires in 2020 compared with 2014.
Donegan said he wants to see federal agencies build the workforce needed to return beneficial fire to Oregon’s landscape.
“We have to figure out just the practicality, logistics, supply chain issues and things like that — and the workforce,” he said. “The good news is that this should bring a lot of revitalization to these rural communities and create a lot of green jobs. This will be a major boon to these rural communities, but we’re not going to be able to flip a switch and suddenly move all this wood.”
Nick Smith with the American Forest Resource Council, a group that advocates for timber harvest on public lands, said having secure funds that will go directly into the state and into communities is a game changer. He said the money will provide good jobs in rural Oregon and address climate change at the same time, but there will need to be some logging to reach the Biden administration’s long-term goal of reducing fire risk on millions of acres across the country.
“We can’t treat 30 million acres through drip torches, brush clearing and just letting fires burn,” Smith said. “To manage on a landscape scale as the strategy wants to do, we need to thin trees, we need to thin forests down to historic and sustainable densities, and we need to do this before natural fire can be reintroduced on these landscapes.”
Smith said most importantly, the Forest Service will need to rebuild the forest industry workforce.
“The plan doesn’t get done without the mills, the forest workers, the truckers, the people on the ground that get the job done but … that infrastructure is very vulnerable,” he said. “We continue to lose that capacity.”
Environmental groups criticized the federal plan for focusing too much on logging and not enough on protecting homes and communities in fire-prone areas.
Tim Ingalsbee, executive director for the Firefighters United For Safety, Ethics and Ecology, said the plan brings nothing new other than funding. He said he’s disappointed it focuses on fighting fire instead of working with fires when they naturally occur.
“To me a wildfire strategy would be centered on that,” he said. “How are we going to live and work with wildfire instead of the same old obsolete paradigm of how can we prevent wildfire or if it happens, how can we fight wildfire.”
Ingalsbee said if there are plans in place to work with fire when it’s naturally ignited by lightning, that would ease the pressure on firefighters already risking their lives on the frontlines. He said the technology is available now to create maps and thorough plans for working with fire instead of waiting until it happens and risking more lives. But he said ultimately the country needs to radically reduce fossil fuel use to address climate change to reduce overall fire risk.
The Forest Service says a regional wildfire prevention plan for the Pacific Northwest is still underway and will be finalized early next month. The plan is intended to be updated periodically based on information gathered from federal, state, and local agencies along with tribes and local communities.