Merkley plans expanded forest management programs

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May 28—Ahead of what's expected to be another devastating wildfire season across the West Coast, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley pledged his support to the U.S. Forest Service in a new leadership role and touted his plans for "substantial investments" in forest management in the wildfire on- and off-seasons.

The Oregon Democrat made the case Wednesday at a hearing with U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen titled "Budgeting for the Future of Forest Management" — his first appearance in his new role as the Chairman of the Senate Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee.

Merkley said during a Zoom meeting Thursday that he hopes to "partner" with the Forest Service and the Biden Administration on programs that will support or increase communities' fire resilience.

"I'm ready to be in partnership with the U.S. Forest Chief," Merkley said, describing plans to get the federal agency the resources it needs to improve forest management, reduce catastrophic fires and provide greater protection for parts of towns and cities threatened by wildfire in the urban-rural interface.

Merkley said he wants to "help the forest service do its job" by working with fellow Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden to end the practice of fire borrowing — when the forest service during particularly bad fire seasons is forced to divert funding from other programs into firefighting.

"All those other programs are shut down, which is incredibly disruptive to all the other work that they're doing," Merkley said.

A "Wildfire Suppression Cap Adjustment" emergency fund that the forest service could dip into during "bad fire years" was enacted in 2018 by the Senate appropriations committee, but the fund conflicts with the 10-year budgets required by the Budget Control Act of 2011.

It's an issue that Merkley has raised with the Forest Service leadership, and said he'll be pushing for a fix to the funding issue.

"We can not go back to the fire borrowing of the past," Merkley said.

Merkley said forest maintenance programs will be priority in his new role chairing the subcommittee.

"As we look to the future, we know that these more aggressive, destructive fire seasons are probably going to keep coming our way," he said. "We have to do a lot more on the front end."

Merkley said he's proposed ideas to the chief of the Forest Service that would expand prescribed burning. He proposes offering forest management jobs to wildland firefighters.

"It seems like really similar skills, possibly a really good deal to create year-round, good paying jobs," Merkley said.

Merkley said he sought double the $40 million in funding for collaborative programs during the 2018 Farm Bill. In his new role as the head of a senate spending subcommittee, Merkley is working to make the $80 million part of the fiscal year 2022 budget.

"I've pushed the Biden administration, and I'm very much hoping that when the budget comes out that it will show a commitment to this $80 million a year," he said, adding that news of the president's "commitment" to the forest management program could be days away.

Merkley said that he'd like to see "at least $1 billion a year spent in managing our forests," involving thinning and prescribed burns to reduce fuels in the forests, and mowing programs to improve firefighters' access to burning wildlands.

"In Oregon we have more than 2 million acres and we've already gone through the environmental process to be approved to be treated, and yet we don't have the money to actually do the treatment," he said.

Merkley said he's spoken with the Biden Administration about "viewing our national forest as infrastructure," and wants the president to add forest management commitments in Biden's infrastructure proposal known as the American Jobs Plan.

An "important tool" in Merkley's efforts with the Forest Service is the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, which brings together stakeholders such as municipal and county governments, the timber industry, utility companies and conservation groups to jointly come up with a "prescription" to manage forests at the local level.

Merkley called the program the "antidote to timber wars."

"The result is the plans stay out of court because the stakeholders were there from the beginning talking to each other," he said.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.

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