The Washington Post: The American West is Burning

Hurricanes such as Harvey, Irma and Maria are unstoppable. They rip at our coastlines and tear at our hearts. The yellow, orange, red, even purple colors on the Doppler radar and weather maps this summer have been horrific to see, but that’s nothing compared to the images of flooded streets and wrecked homes. Those images inspired Americans to band together and do what we could for our neighbors in the South. In crises such as these, Americans show what they’re truly made of: unwavering resolve and kind hearts.

But if you could, return to the weather map, zoom out for a moment and scroll up about 2,000 miles northwest. You won’t see torrential rain or hurricane force winds. You will see red — fire red — and it’s on the move. Searing wildfires have transformed national parks, dense forests, grazing pastures and homes into blistered, smoldering wastelands. In my home state of Montana, more than 1 million acres have burned this year. Nationally, we’ve lost more than 8 million acres.

The crisis in the West is not water; it’s fire. It has spread rapidly and with increasing intensity while the nation’s attention has been elsewhere. It’s time we modernize federal regulations to address the problem.

Since the 1990s, environmental lawsuits and excessive regulation have become barriers to responsible forest management. Every year, the Forest Service spends more than $350 million trying to comply with federal law governing forest management projects to prevent litigation, but it is routinely sued by radical environmental groups anyway.

The results of this obstruction are clear and appalling. The risk of wildfires has grown considerably, devastating communities that thrive on the economic benefits of National Forests. That means lost jobs and lost tax revenue for schools and critical infrastructure.

If you look at the decline in timber harvests on National Forest land since 1990, you can’t miss the correlation between harvesting and wildfire. Harvests drastically declined and, combined with the legal obstacles preventing the removal of fire fuel, wildfires grew larger and more severe. We have effectively increased the risk of wildfire by allowing cluttered forest floors to build up with more material that can burn. The Forest Service estimates there are now 6.3 billion dead and diseased trees across 11 Western states. These diseased trees increase the risk of wildfire and pose a direct threat to the safety of wildland firefighters. In fact, two Montana firefighters were killed this year after dead trees burned and collapsed.

Montana’s mills frequently experience log shortages, but regulations and chronic litigation prevent them from harvesting the trees that threaten to burn. To make up for this timber, mills must import from Canada and other states.

An abundance of science shows that a properly managed forest would reduce the size and severity of wildfires, while improving fish and wildlife habitat, water quality and recreation opportunities. By increasing responsible timber harvests, we could also enhance public safety by reducing the enormous amount of greenhouse gases and smoke that rise into the air during wildfires.

We cannot prevent hurricanes, nor can we can prevent the droughts, winds and lightning strikes that contribute to wildfires. But what we can control is how we manage our National Forests. We should pass reforms that allow forest management projects to occur without the threat of frivolous lawsuits by fringe environmentalists. We also need to cut red tape, such as reducing the length of time for environmental reviews, to allow the Forest Service to better manage our forests. And we need to protect the Forest Service budget from the ever-growing cost of putting out fires.

We must do these things to reduce the severity of wildfires, mitigate the risk to our nation’s firefighters, protect more communities, bring loggers back to work and save our public lands from becoming charred shadows of once-beautiful landscapes.

I grew up — and still live — just 90 miles outside of Yellowstone National Park. Glacier National Park is about 290 miles to the north. If we don’t act on forest management reform, the treasured forests and skylines I have loved all my life may not look the same for my grandchildren, and I won’t stand for that. Nor do I think the American people will. Once they see tragedy, they band together and act. Either we will manage the forests, or the forests will manage us.