- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 7, 2017

Westerners are sick of it: the smoke, the evacuations, the moon turned burnt orange by soot, all driven by catastrophic wildfires by now so predictable that they practically have their own season.

“The summers here are about a month and a half because the rest of the time is spent fighting forest fires,” said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who was born and raised in Montana.

Year in and year out, Mr. Zinke and other Republicans have sought to reduce the fire danger by thinning the overgrown federal forests, meeting with resistance every time from environmentalists, who insist the problem isn’t too many trees, it’s global warming.

But 2017 may be different. As treacherous late-season wildfires burn millions of acres from California to Montana, the level of frustration among elected officials and their constituents may have finally combine to break the political logjam.

“How many more thousands of acres in Montana and all through the West must burn before we act?” asked Sen. Steve Daines, Montana Republican, in a Wednesday speech on the Senate floor.

Mr. Zinke and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue have teamed to figure out ways to clear the dense thicket of litigation and regulation that has for years stalled projects aimed at cutting back the federal forests, many plagued with diseased and dying trees.

“We can’t do anything about the weather, but we can do things about forest management that make sense so we can diminish forest fires for the future,” Mr. Perdue said at a recent press conference with Mr. Zinke at the Lolo Creek firefighting camp near Florence, Montana.

In their corner are House Republicans — and a few Democrats — behind the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017, aimed at dialing back the environmental litigation that has bogged down thinning projects for nearly two decades.

The legislation won approval in June from the House Natural Resources Committee in June. Similar bills passed the House in previous years before dying in the Senate.

“A lack of active management has left our forests overly dense and stocked with dead and dying trees that feed catastrophic wildfires,” said chairman Rob Bishop. “As management decreases, forest health deteriorates and fires grow in size, density and cost.”

The reignited debate comes as the Forest Service, which falls under the Agriculture Department, has watched its firefighting expenses soar, jumping from 15 to 55 percent of the budget and forcing cutbacks in areas such as facility maintenance and recreation.

Democrats like Washington Gov. Jay Inslee are frustrated, too, only for different reasons. Earlier this week he called out President Trump for failing to take global warming more seriously.

“Our forests have turned into time bombs,” Mr. Inslee told MyNorthwest. “We have been devastated by climate change. And I gotta tell ya, we ought to have the president, who’s denied climate change, come out here and smell this smoke and see this ash.”

Keith Hammer, chair of the Swan View Coalition, an environmental group based in Kalispell, Montana, called it “irresponsible to lay blame on environmentalists during a record-setting summer of heat, drought, wind and climate change.”

“The debate over logging and lawsuits is literally a smoke screen to divert the conversation away from climate change and warming, which is why places like Montana are now having big droughts and long fire seasons every couple of years instead of once every decade or longer,” Mr. Hammer said in an email.

Mr. Perdue argued that privately managed lands have fared far better in terms of fire damage than federal lands during the same period.

“Irrespective of the cause or the effect, let’s do what we can,” said Mr. Perdue. “That’s why we’re here. We can’t affect what the weather is or anything else, but we can affect how we manage these forests to reduce the impact of forest fire.”

Nearly 8 million acres have burned so far in 2017, making this a worse-than-average wildfire year despite the wet winter and spring. Montana currently leading Western states with 21 active wildfires as of Thursday, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Other states reporting a rash of wildfires include Oregon, Washington, Idaho and California, where firefighters have now contained the La Tuna fire, the biggest blaze in Los Angeles history in terms of acreage.

California Gov. Jerry Brown issued a Sept. 1 executive order extending an emergency proclamation allowing any licensed professionals to “remove dead trees that threaten life, property, and the environment.”

One reason? Climate change. The Democrat argued that the state’s 102 million dead trees have created their own climate crisis in that the die-off “worsens wildfire risk across large regions of the State” and “such wildfires will release thousands of tons of greenhouse gas emissions and other harmful air pollutants.”

Republicans have also pointed to the impact of wildfires on the atmosphere. After smoke from the Chetco Bar Fire forced the Ashland Shakespeare Festival to cancel performances last month due to smoke and haze, Rep. Greg Walden declared, “Enough is enough.”

The Oregon Republican called for a federal review on the impact of wildfires on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, as well as the threat to habitat, water quality and property destruction.

He predicted the House would soon pass the Resilient Federal Forests Act and urged the Senate to “stop blocking our bipartisan legislation,” saying he was convinced President Trump would sign it “if we can only get it to his desk.”

At least four states have declared states of emergency as a result of this year’s wildfires, while the Oregon fires alone have cost state and federal agencies $100 million to date, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

“Either we are going to manage the forests,” Mr. Daines said, “or the forests are going to manage us.”

• This report is based in part on wires reports.

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