Daines: Wildfires underscore need to reform forest management

The Roaring Lion Fire, burning over 7,000 acres southwest of Hamilton, has already claimed one life and over 60 homes and structures. As fighters continue to battle the blaze, the destruction only underscores the importance of urgently passing forest reform legislation.

Each summer that passes without comprehensive forest management reform is another summer when Mother Nature takes the matter into her own hands, filling our skies with the smoke of catastrophic wildfires.

During a visit to the Roaring Lion Fire camp, I was able to visit with many of the men and women battling the fire and speak to them about realities on the ground. Excessive accumulation of fuels from beetle kill and over-crowding of trees means that our forests burn very hot, very fast and are increasingly dangerous for firefighters. The Bitterroot National Forest spokesman said that he has “never seen a fire take off and burn so quick,” leaving the firefighters struggling to catch up to the blaze and contain it in time to stop the tragic loss of life and property. Cindy and I are praying for the men and women fighting fires across Montana and the safety of the communities under threat.

As a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, I see bipartisan consensus that the status quo for forest management is not sustainable. I’ve been working toward reforms that reduce red tape, discourage obstructionist litigation and fund wildfire suppression in the same manner as other natural disasters. The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are in final negotiations on legislation to achieve these goals and I’m hopeful that we will be able to come to agreement this year.

The Roaring Lion Fire, as well as fires burning in the Bitterroot and Lolo National Forests, and surrounding Thompson Falls and Ennis, and others across Montana, are heartbreaking examples of the urgent need for commonsense restoration projects that reduce the risk and magnitude of wildfires. Many of the acres burning near Hamilton threaten communities and were slated for restoration beginning later this year. But while the Forest Service sought to swiftly implement the project using an expedited process established by Congress in 2014, it was slowed by objections and now faces litigation, which will delay it further.

Across Montana there are almost five million acres of national forest land that have been identified as in critical need of restoration and fire mitigation projects. I’m working to provide the Forest Service with additional tools and flexibility so that it can carry out these projects faster and without the persistent threat of litigation. Doing so is vital to protecting watersheds, fish and wildlife habitat, clean air, our recreational and tourism economy, and most important, the safety of our communities.

Our national forests are one of our state’s valued treasures and a renewable resource that should thrive. We know that responsible and active management of our forests decreases the severity and destruction of wildfires. We must pass commonsense reforms now and not spend another summer wishing that we had.

Steve Daines serves the people of Montana as the Junior U.S. Senator from the Treasure State.