Just prior to a Sunday town hall meeting at Phoenix High School, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley championed a bill he introduced late last year that would provide $1 billion annually for wildfire reduction.
The Wildfire-Resilient Communities Act would fund thinning, prescribed burns, fuels reduction, and other activities meant to reduce wildfires and the resulting sky-smothering smoke.
Merkley championed the bill just prior to an event held at the Phoenix High School gymnasium, his 383rd such session before heading to nearby Grants Pass for number 384.
“Let’s get funds in. Let’s thin these forests. Let’s get the fuels off the bottom,” Merkley said. “We can provide saw logs to the mill and make the forest far more fire resilient at the same time. So I’m trying to get the funds up front for us to be able to do that.”
Wildfires came with a $515 million price tag in 2018 in Oregon alone, with flames torching hundreds of thousands of acres of forestland, smoke fouling the air, and local economies severely impacted. Recently, the American Lung Association ranked the Medford-Grants Pass area as having some of the most polluted air in the country: 10th worst when it comes to year-round particle pollution and 17th worst for short-term particle pollution.
Merkley believes the act would satisfy both the timber and environmental stakeholders — and have an impact on the fires.
“A few years ago, I was up in John Day, at the mill, and we were trying to figure out how they could have a steady supply of saw logs, keep the mill open, modernize it,” Merkley said. “And the solution was a stewardship agreement. That brought together all the stakeholders. The timber side and the environmental side, and they work out a prescription for the woods.”
That prescription includes forest thinning and fuels reduction, he added, all of which the mill used.
“They do traditional lumber out of the saw logs, but then they’re also doing wood pellets for pellet stoves, biomass bricks for commercial boilers,” Merkley said. “They’re even doing torrefied nuggets to sell to Japan in lieu of coal. So take all of that, make commercial products out of it, big range set of uses, and leave the forest in far better shape.”
Other town hall topics covered included education funding, public lands, climate change, and voting rights. Merkley said face time sessions with constituents is a valuable pastime.
“I continuously hear new issues or new ideas about how to solve issues,” Merkley said. “A number of my bills have flowed from ideas that were raised in town halls.”
Merkley added he has done a town hall once every 10 days on average. He said we need more of these types of events when it comes to public discourse.