Catastrophic Wildfires Threaten Clean And Healthy Environment

Catastrophic Wildfires Threaten Clean And Healthy Environment

"It’s time for our leaders to prioritize active forest management to mitigate the growing threat of catastrophic fires and secure Montanans’ fundamental right to a clean and healthy environment."

Even D.C. politicians are now choking under the smoke-filled air that has seemingly become a routine part of summer life for western states. As heavy smoke engulfed cities on the East Coast last week, it has become clear that increasingly catastrophic wildfires have progressed from a regional issue to a national crisis. It’s time for our leaders to prioritize active forest management to mitigate the growing threat of catastrophic fires and secure Montanans’ fundamental right to a clean and healthy environment.

The forests that our federal and state governments manage are sending hundreds of millions of tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere as they burn each year. In 2021 alone, wildfires in the U.S. emitted 227 million tons of CO2 and CO2 equivalents. By contrast, gas cooking in the U.S. produces methane equivalent to 65 million tons of CO2 annually. We also know that growing, healthy, actively managed forests are robust carbon sinks. Instead of micromanaging the carbon emissions of regular citizens with ham-fisted gas stove bans, shouldn’t climate-conscious politicians be doing everything they can to restore forest health and mitigate unnaturally severe wildfires?

Historically, low-intensity wildfire has been a healthy part of forest ecosystems, but forests are not adapted to the extreme fires we see today. Poor human management in the 20th century has made forests overloaded with fuel. When combined with frequent drought and a changing climate, fires are getting bigger and more devastating — destroying fish and wildlife habitat and degrading critical watersheds. I’m certainly not the only Montanan who has seen their favorite trout stream torched or huckleberry patch incinerated in recent years.

Another palpable impact of unnaturally severe wildfires is the impact on air quality. Prolonged smoke exposure has harmful cardiovascular and respiratory effects, and even increases the risk of death. Montanans routinely experience unhealthy or even hazardous levels of smoke during fire season, and it seems to be getting worse every year.

Active forest management using proactive techniques like mechanical thinning (logging) and prescribed burns to restore forest health is a proven strategy for mitigating the threat of catastrophic wildfires that is widely recognized by leaders in Congressconservation groups, the Montana DNRC and the Forest Service. Expanding forest management is also a key element of Montana’s Climate Solutions Plan. Yet, only a tiny fraction of federal and state forests facing high risk of wildfire are actively managed each year.

One major reason for the undermanagement of America’s forests is quite simply a policy failure: important projects are routinely blocked by red tape and litigation from radical environmentalist groups. Outdated environmental review laws like the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act often delay critical management projects for years. Even when reviews are finally approved, frivolous litigation over the analysis can hold up important management projects in the courts for years.

Montana’s leaders have thankfully led by example on forest management. Montana’s congressional delegation have all endorsed legislation to help fix burdensome environmental red tape and disruptive litigation. At home, Gov. Greg Gianforte has doubled the state forest acres actively managed since taking office. These are great steps, but much more needs to be done.

Montana’s Constitution recognizes a clean and healthful environment as an inalienable right of all people. Increasingly catastrophic wildfires are a crisis threatening the climate, the quality of Montana’s environment, and the health of its citizens. Failure by our leaders to dramatically increase the pace and scale of active forest management puts our right to a clean and healthy environment at risk.

This column originally appeared in Lee Newspapers.

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