Time to pass good policy that saves forests, lives

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Within minutes of the deadly Camp Fire’s ignition, several acres were ablaze as fire spotters stood by helplessly. While Capt. Matt McKenzie of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection responded quickly, firetrucks were unable to reach the blaze and helicopters and air tankers were grounded due to the timing and weather, according to a report. Within two hours, the fire tore through the towns of Concow and Paradise before it raged on, claiming thousands of structures and dozens of lives.

President Donald Trump and I both saw the devastation of the fire on our recent trips to California: piles of rubble recognizable as houses only by their chimneys and charred appliances, and vehicles melted to the pavement in pools of molten aluminum. We also saw the heroism of firefighters, first responders and volunteers working together to battle the blaze and help the community.

California is a tinderbox. The ongoing drought, warm temperatures, insect infestations, poor forest management, continued residential and commercial expansion in the wildland-urban interface and other factors have made the western United States more prone to fire. The strong winds in California can rapidly turn a routine brush fire into a deadly blowtorch and send a storm of embers ahead of the flames.

Right now Congress is working on the final version of the Farm Bill, which includes forest management provisions in addition to changes to Department of Agriculture programs. The House version of the bill would allow land managers to remove dead trees and dense brush from federal land that insect infestations and ongoing drought conditions have turned into matchsticks. One proposal would allow for the expedited approval of salvage logging projects to remove charred and dead logs after a fire.

There’s a lot of misinformation out there about what forest management means and what it doesn’t. Part of forest management includes reducing the fuel load by scientifically determining which trees need to be removed in order to improve forest health and resiliency. Active management doesn’t necessarily mean clear-cutting or large-scale logging, as some environmentalists would have you believe. It also includes prescribed burns in the colder seasons and clearing power line corridors of hazardous trees and excessive brush so if a wire or tree does fall it’s less likely to ignite.

I’ve visited too many fire camps, grieved with too many victims and spoken with too many experts to know that our communities and loved ones deserve to be better protected. We owe it to the firefighters and neighbors we have lost to work harder to improve the health of our forests.

Every year we watch our forests burn, and every year there is a call for action. Yet, nothing gets done. Now Congress has the opportunity to pass good policy that saves forests and lives by including House-passed proposals for forest management in the Farm Bill.

— Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke is from Whitefish

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