COLUMN: Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities: Striking a Better Balance for Public Land Management
The Pacific Northwest is true timber country, blessed with an abundance of forests that provide rich natural resources and recreation in Central Washington. The health and management of public forests like Okanogan and Gifford-Pinchot National Forests are closely tied to job growth and economic opportunity for neighboring rural communities. Too often, however, local communities feel left out when federal decisions are made regarding public land. In Congress, I am committed to addressing that imbalance.
The federal government often falls woefully short at effective public forest management, and rural communities pay the price. Timber payments from federal lands have been declining for years and have had a negative impact on local economies. I urged approval of a two-year reauthorization of the bipartisan Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act (SRS), which provides critical funding to counties and localities with large tracts of federally-owned National Forest land. While continuing these payments honors the government’s commitment to rural communities, the long-term solution lies in more effective management of federal forests.
Even as timber payments have fallen, the threat of wildfires—which do not recognize boundaries between federal, state, and private lands—has grown. I recently saw firsthand the lasting damage caused by the catastrophic Carlton Complex fire, the largest wildfire in state history, which destroyed hundreds of homes in Okanogan County and caused untold economic hardship for residents. Federal management policy could mitigate these crises by keeping forests healthy and preventing public lands from becoming tinder boxes.
To increase local control of forest management and wildfire prevention, I cosponsored the Healthy Forest Management and Wildfire Prevention Act. The bill would allow states and local governments to designate high-risk areas and develop emergency hazardous fuels reduction projects for those areas. Supported by my predecessor, Doc Hastings, the bill would also provide comprehensive reform that advances proactive forest management to protect habitats and improve economic growth and job creation in local communities. In order to improve the federal response to emerging wildfire threats, I also cosponsored the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which would allow for additional funds to be made available for fighting wildfires.
It is no coincidence that land management is most efficient at the state and local level, where it has the most immediate impact on economic development. Last month, I had the opportunity to introduce my first piece of legislation in Congress: The Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act (FLTFA) Reauthorization of 2015, which would allow a common-sense approach to land management by granting flexibility in transactions involving surplus federal land. The law would authorize the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to sell surplus federal lands to states, localities, or private entities. Profits from the sales could then be used to purchase state or private land encumbered by National Parks and other federal areas, which is a fiscally-responsible way to improve recreational, hunting and fishing access. Since its initial introduction in 2000, FLTFA reduced federal land ownership by 9,000 acres over the course of a decade.
Congress must continue to push for federal forest management that strikes a balance to keep forests healthy and build a strong economic future for rural communities.