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Izaak Walton League's View: Don't sell out national forests in name of fighting wildfires

Dave Granlund/Cagle Cartoons

Like many Minnesotans, we were disheartened to learn that a bill that could lead to mining on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness passed the U.S. House. The measure sells out the Boundary Waters and our national forest to special interests ("House passes Twin Metals mining bill," Dec. 1).

But this wasn't the first attack on our forests from this Congress, and it won't be the last.

Members of the Minnesota Izaak Walton League recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to discuss with our congressional representatives the importance of protecting public lands in Minnesota and across the country.

We also discussed the need for comprehensive fire funding for the U.S. Forest Service in response to years of devastating fires across much of the West. This year's unprecedented fire season resulted in a tragic loss of life and property, draining federal, state, and local resources. Climate change and fuel buildup from decades of fire suppression have diminished the health of our nation's forests and are creating more intense and extreme wildfires. Sprawling development into forests and a nearly year-round wildfire season are driving a surge in firefighting costs.

Minnesota's national forests are directly impacted by what happens out West. To meet staffing demands at the fires and supplement the Forest Service's fire budget, local staff and money are sent west from the Chippewa and Superior national forests. On western forests, even projects to reduce the severity of wildfires are sacrificed to meet firefighting demands.

Over the past 20 years, the portion of the U.S. Forest Service budget dedicated to wildfire suppression grew from 16 percent to 52 percent. When that falls short in a given year, funding for local wildlife management, timber sales, recreation, and all other programs are diverted to firefighting, resulting in a lost benefit here in Minnesota and across the nation.

We met with members of the Minnesota delegation to promote a bipartisan solution for Forest Service fire funding, a bill co-sponsored by Rep. Michael Simpson, R-Idaho, and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., that would limit the portion of the Forest Service budget dedicated to firefighting and that would provide any amount over that from disaster funds, much as we do for flood or hurricane relief. We are grateful Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Reps. Betty McCollum, Tim Walz, and Rick Nolan, all of Minnesota, promote this sensible bill.

In a November interview with the Society of American Foresters, new Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke said, "So we need a fire-funding fix that basically does two things: First, we need to stop the growth in the annual average of fire-suppression costs. Second, we need a fire-funding fix that pays for the costliest fires, the fires that are natural disasters, and pays for them outside our normal agency appropriations." That is the Simpson-Wyden bill in a nutshell.

Unfortunately, two other bills that ostensibly seek to fix the fire-funding issue are the Resilient Federal Forests Act from Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., and the Forest Management Improvement Act from Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. Both take an extreme-logging approach to fire prevention and undercut the National Environmental Policy Act requirement for public engagement through environmental review. They make it possible to undertake multiple 10,000-acre logging projects without considering cumulative impacts on water quality, wildlife, and recreation — while also eliminating the public's ability to comment on or seek judicial review of questionable projects. The Westerman bill passed the House while we were in Washington, sadly with the support of all representatives from Minnesota except Keith Ellison, McCollum, and Walz.

What we found most disheartening was that two Minnesota congressmen, Nolan and Collin Peterson, co-sponsored the Westerman bill at its introduction. We were stunned to hear Rep. Nolan tell us he has heard no objection or controversy over that bill.

Fortunately, our two U.S. senators from Minnesota will have the opportunity to stop proposals threatening our national forests from becoming law. Right now, both the House and Senate are backroom dealing to attach the Westerman bill to must-pass spending bills or even to next year's farm bill.

To us, it is clear the sustainable bipartisan solution to fire funding lies in adequate supplemental funding and science-based forest management that includes the public, as is offered in Simpson's and Wyden's Wildfire Disaster Funding Act — and that isn't in reckless logging enabled by decreased public participation and behind-the-scenes deals in Congress.

We hope all Minnesotans will contact Sens. Klobuchar and Tina Smith and Congressmen Nolan and Peterson to make sure they are hearing loudly and clearly that Minnesotans oppose controversial bills that sell out our national forests.

Craig Sterle of Barnum is the Minnesota state division president for the McCabe Chapter of the Izaak Walton League. Piper Hawkins-Donlin of Duluth is a member of the McCabe chapter's conservation issues team. And Don Arnosti of St. Paul is the director of the conservation program for the chapter.

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