Forest management goes to the forefront

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Rains finally fell over Paradise, California on Friday. Thank goodness.

The city in Northern California was reduced to ashes by the Camp Fire this month — at least 84 people killed, hundreds still missing, thousands of buildings burned to the ground, and tens of thousands left homeless as winter approaches. The blaze is now 95 percent contained — our hearts go out to all affected by this catastrophe.

The deadliest wildfire in the U.S. over the past 100 years has grabbed the nation’s attention — and for those of us out West, the devastation has hit too close to home. It’s not difficult to imagine something like the hellish inferno of the Camp Fire happening here in Western Montana.

But rising from the rubble in Paradise appears to be a very real and necessary conversation among our nation’s top officials about forest management and the potential to mitigate these types of tragedies.

Folks in our neck of the woods have been talking for years about sustainable forest management and the need to protect the urban-wildland interface (where homes bump up against the forest) from fast-moving wildfires.

Just this summer Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., spoke with the Inter Lake about the issue after he toured the Howe Ridge Fire in Glacier National Park.

“We need to get back to managing our forests again, instead of breathing them each summer,” Gianforte quipped as that fire torched the forest and dozens of historical cabins along the shore Lake McDonald.

A few days later, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., again pushed the topic of forest management with a bill he said could break a logjam of litigation surrounding timber sales in Montana.

“We’ve got more lawyers running around in our national forests than we do loggers,” Daines said.

Of course, we expect Montana’s congressional delegation to understand these issues. But hearing U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke and even President Donald Trump take up the topic of forest management last week gives us hope that we could soon move beyond talk and into action.

Yes, we’ve seen the memes and heard the jokes poking fun at Trump for the awkward forest-raking comments he made while touring the ruins of Paradise. Raised among the towering skyscrapers of New York City, not the forest canopies of the West, he obviously doesn’t grasp the entirety of what forest management entails. But after seeing first-hand the sheer destruction of these historic wildfires, he surely understands the loss and emotional toll, and the need to finally do something about it. And honestly, that’s all that matters.

The truth is, it’s going to take massive federal support to address these issues. The costs of fighting fires annually — estimated at $2.5 billion — far exceeds the funds allocated for forest fuels reduction. Reversing that trend is going to take time and support from D.C. decision-makers in this administration and beyond.

With the president’s support, we hope Congress can finally jump-start these forest management initiatives.

“This goes back years, it’s not one administration,” Zinke said in a teleconference with the press last week. “It’s a failure to manage our public lands and it is absolutely a situation that can be mitigated.”

He’s right on that point. Zinke is calling for, among other things, better cooperation between the federal agencies that manage public land and more local control in decisions about prescribed burns and timber harvests.

Meanwhile, Perdue is pushing for expanded use of the Good Neighbor Authority that allows for forest management partnerships between state and federal agencies — something that could be of particular use in Northwest Montana.

Of course, “forest management” shouldn’t be misinterpreted or misused as a license to pillage public lands without oversight.

It should mean respectful dialogue among all stakeholders about how to sustainably and responsibly manage our forests and protect our most-prone communities along the urban-wildland interface — followed by swift action.

It’s time to stop standing in our own way on forest management — or else it will be too late.

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