Merkley Introduces Bill to Reduce Severity of Wildfires

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley today introduced the Wildfire-Resilient Communities Act to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires, and the smoke and economic losses that they cause. 

“Across the country, our communities have been threatened by increasingly severe wildfires,” Merkley said. “As we saw this summer in Oregon, even communities not directly impacted by flames were inundated with smoke. We need a dramatic increase in the resources that make our forests—and our timber economies—healthier.  With a guaranteed increase of a billion dollars a year in fuels reduction and new authorities and incentives for communities to work to improve the resilience of their forests, we can stop catastrophic wildfires from becoming a staple of western summers.”

Due to a hotter and drier climate through much of the West, the risk of severe and catastrophic fires continues to grow. Last year, 71,500 wildfires burned 10 million acres nationwide, the second-largest figure on record. So far this year, nearly 7.5 million acres have burned. And yet, the Forest Service still lacks the funding and the boots on the ground to implement badly needed fuels reduction projects.

Year after year, fire suppression eats up more and more of the Forest Service’s budget and personnel. Between 1998 and 2016, the number of Forest Service fire personnel grew by over 6,000 employees. At the same time, the number of employees for other critical work—like planning timber sales, thinning projects, trail maintenance—decreased by 7,000. The result: Fewer resources for proactive forest management and a multi-million acre backlog of projects.

Merkley’s Wildfire-Resilient Communities Act would create economic opportunities in forest-dependent communities while reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires by:

  • Creating a $1 billion fund to provide stability and allow the Forest Service to increase the pace and scale of catastrophic wildfire reduction projects.
  • Empowering federal agencies to work with local communities to plan and prepare for wildfires.
  • Permanently reauthorizing the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, allowing more projects to receive funding in a given fiscal year.
  • Creating a County Stewardship Fund that would provide payments to counties equal to 25% of stewardship contract receipts on federal land within their counties.

“Through focused investments in forest restoration and community protection we can prepare our communities and landscapes for wildfires,” said Joseph Vaile, Executive Director of Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center. “Our forests were more adapted to fire before we cut down so many of the large, fire resistant trees. We replaced too many of our old growth forests with flammable second growth forests. We need to fund the kind of work that can restore our forests and help build more fire and climate resilient landscapes and communities, and Sen. Merkley’s bill would help us do that.”

“The bottom line for our business is providing good-paying jobs in our communities, improving forest health, and supporting efforts to protect the public from increased wildfire risks,” said Bruce Daucsavage, President of Ochoco Lumber Company. “This bill provides practical and immediate solutions that will address the most pressing challenges facing the well-being of our forests and communities in eastern Oregon. We commend Senator Merkley for investing in programs that work, and for supporting collaborative partnerships that can create a safer and healthier future for Oregon.”

“The Wildfire-Resilient Communities Act is everything that Counties could have ever asked for and then some!” said Lake County Commissioner Dan Shoun. “Senator Merkley has really shown how incredibly serious he is about solving the National issue of needed Forest Health and Restoration. This Act is a long-needed and very timely piece of legislation for millions of at risk Public Land acres. Our sincere thanks goes out to Senator Merkley.”

“Catastrophic wildfires are threatening our tribal homelands and our people,” said Michael Rondeau, CEO, Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians. “We are appreciative of the hard work Senator Merkley is doing to restore the forests of our homelands through the Wildfire-Resilient Communities Act.” 

“I appreciate Senator Merkley’s continued efforts for our fire stricken rural communities with his introduction of The Wildfire-Resilient Communities Act,” said David Brock Smith, Oregon State Representative, House District 1. “This Act will greatly assist our communities, help align federal, state and local agency resources for community fire resiliency projects, while providing local resources for these programs and services to protect residents.”

“Southern Oregon has been hard hit by the health and economic impacts of smoke and fire,” said Pam Marsh, Oregon State Representative, House District 5. “Senator Merkley’s legislation will help us jumpstart the collaborative forest projects that will protect our communities, while rewarding counties for their support of stewardship agreements.  This is how we’ll start the work that will help us respond to changing conditions.”

“The Wildfire-Resilient Communities Act, is a much needed solution to provide resources that will increase active forest management,” said Mark Owens, Harney County Commissioner. “This management is the major key to reducing forest fires. Including provisions for forest collaboratives and County funding make this act a home run for western counties.”

“I am happy to see Senator Merkley working towards finding solutions to the devastating wildfires happening in our homelands,” said Brenda Meade, Chairman of the Coquille Indian Tribe. “Until we all start looking at forest management as managing for all things, and realize that these lands are our responsibility to take care of, we will not have healthy forests. So with this Bill I will look forward to seeing how local communities can come together to solve these huge problems we are facing, and I hope that we begin to care for our forest once again.”

“I appreciate Senator Merkley’s leadership in addressing catastrophic wildfire danger in our communities,” said Melissa Cribbins, Coos County Commissioner. “This bill is a vital step in improving forest health and increasing community collaboration, while helping to stabilize county funding.”

“The need for increased investment in our federal forests and rural communities has never been more urgent,” said Dylan Kruse, Director of Government Affairs at Sustainable Northwest. “We can’t afford to keep playing catch up. This bill takes immediate action to address the massive management backlog on our forests, and expands bipartisan programs to prepare for the future. We commend Senator Merkley for rising above the partisan fray and introducing legislation that will make a real difference with resources that meet the scale of need.”

“Our Forest Service partners have done a great job  helping Ashland Forest Resiliency become a successful model, but we realize that a regional solution to the wildfire and smoke dilemma is needed,” said John Stromberg, Mayor of the City of Ashland. “Adding Forest Service capacity is essential to safer communities and cleaner summer air for our citizens.”

“I applaud our Senator’s continued leadership in helping us to protect our communities from catastrophic wildfire,” said Tammy Baney, Deschutes County Commissioner. “This comprehensive legislation not only will assist with the backlog of fuels that sit in our forests, it provides the essential funding necessary to assist with education, planning and prevention work which will help to create fire adapted and resilient communities.”