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COLUMN: Federal Government Must Improve Forest, Gray Wolf Management

September 7, 2016
Weekly Column and Op-Ed

This summer, I have spoken with constituents across Central Washington, and many are rightly frustrated with the way federal agencies manage public lands. Almost one-third of our state is managed by the federal government. From wildfires to wildlife habitat to public access, federal policy can hinder or help our communities. Federal decision making has an enormous impact on the way these lands can be used, which in turn affects the economies of local rural communities. Washingtonians deserve a government that is more responsive to their concerns and that provides clarity on management policies.

Recently, the management of gray wolves in our state has become a flashpoint. While much focus has been on the state’s conservation and management efforts of the wolf population in the eastern third of Washington, many people may not know that the federal government continues to exercise control over the wolf population in the western two thirds of our state due to the species’ listing as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) found that gray wolves are not endangered and proposed removing the gray wolf from the list as recently as 2013, yet the continued listing in the western two-thirds of Washington State maintains the status quo of federal management. Of course, gray wolves do not recognize boundaries between state and federal management, and treating the species as endangered on one side of the state but not the other blocks sensible state and local management. The federal government’s lack of progress on complying with its own scientific recommendation feeds the public impression that when it comes to federal policies on public lands, the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. I have led efforts in Congress to push FWS to continue with its own recommendation to delist the gray wolf so that Pacific Northwest states can manage wolf populations with local input in a balanced way.

Another issue of continued concern is prevention of disastrous wildfires. A recent government watchdog report found that the U.S. Forest Service’s  (USFS) lack of a systemic nationwide process for designating hazardous fuel reduction projects and the USFS’ overstatement of acreage treated in current projects “plac[es] areas at increased risk of catastrophic wildland fire.” The report found cases where the USFS double or even triple-counted of the amount of land that they had treated, leaving forest communities more vulnerable. While coming up with a national plan is not a silver bullet, the problem illustrates the larger issue of federal management of national forests. I recently visited the Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Partnership in Tonasket, which is carrying out important work to improve forest health in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Joint Chiefs illustrates the importance of projects that reduce the threat of wildfires in Central Washington, but the USFS must address its own lack of a plan to prioritize projects nationwide that protect our national forests and particularly fire-prone Western communities.

I will continue to hold the federal government accountable because on the issues of gray wolves and wildfire prevention, there is clearly much room to improve management practices in a manner that increases local confidence.