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Walden presses Congress for fire prevention

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden said he is looking to congressional colleagues and agencies including the U.S. Forest Service to provide future relief from wildfire smoke, which had only slightly improved this week by the time of his Tuesday press conference in Medford.

Standing in front of an orange S-64 Aircrane helicopter flanked by county commissioners from Jackson and Josephine counties, Walden detailed legislative work he was involved in prior to Congress’ summer recess to address wildfire prevention in the House version of the farm bill.

His efforts in the House focus largely on forest management, he said, including thinning forests as a method of fuel reduction and expediting cleanup of burned areas after wildfires are put out.

“Today I’m calling on my colleagues who are negotiating the final provisions of the farm bill in the Senate to accept the provisions we put in the House to give expanded authorities to the Forest Service and (Bureau of Land Management) to do more work to prevent these kinds of catastrophic fires,” Walden said.

He cited statistics referenced by an Oregon State University professor, John Bailey, in his testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, that some parts of eastern Oregon have 1,000 trees per acre on land that historically had 20 trees per acre, adding significant fuel for wildfires.

Later, the congressman pointed to U.S. Forest Service Region 6, saying it has not effectively used all available wildfire prevention tools, such as the “Good Neighbor Policy.” That policy allows the Forest Service and BLM to contract out forest management or watershed restoration projects. A federal funding omnibus bill passed in March expanded Good Neighbor Policies to include road maintenance and culverts among other infrastructure projects.

Walden said that he supports Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen’s process of having regions outline how they will put increased funding from that same omnibus bill to good use. U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, speaking on the same topic during a Sunday visit to Medford, said that he expected Christiansen to deliver a plan to that effect sometime this week.

The House and Senate each produced their own version of the farm bill and now will try to reach a compromise that both houses will approve. Comments like Walden’s are directed to the Senate and House leaders who will hash out the final joint version before the Sept. 30 deadline. The fire management reforms in the House version are not included in the Senate version.

As Walden repeated his support for quicker post-fire cleanup, less than 100 miles away, the Klondike fire was burning in the scar of the 2017 Chetco Bar fire in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.

But firefighters have also pointed to a wider variety of contributing factors to an unusually active and early wildfire season along the West Coast this year. In Southern Oregon, one of those is high temperatures — and according to a presentation Sunday by National Weather Service meteorologist Ryan Sandler, the last three weeks of July have been the hottest on record.

“We all know the climate’s changing,” Walden said. “The United Nations Climate Change Task Force has said forest fires are a big contributing factor to the kinds of particulate matter and carbon in the air, pollutants in the air that exacerbate it.”

There, too, he critiqued Forest Service approaches, including a view Christiansen recently expressed that the fire-frequent West would benefit from distinguishing between “wanted” and “unwanted” fire in deciding whether to attack it immediately.

“We need a more holistic view of just letting fires burn,” he said. “There’s a whole other set of issues there that I think they’re just avoiding,”

The East Oregonian reported that the 10-term incumbent told Jamie McLeod-Skinner, his Democratic challenger in the Second Congressional District, Saturday the two would “figure out a schedule that works” to arrange debates within the district. He said no details had been arranged since then.

“You know, I was on the road driving back from Joseph through Sunday and then headed down here,” he said, “so, no.”

Walden was in Josephine County prior to the press conference at Erickson Aviation, and his staff said he would remain in the area Wednesday, but his staff did not respond to a request for more detail on the congressman’s schedule.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

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