Who says Congress is so gridlocked that nothing is accomplished?
Consider what happened in late 2021 when the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Root and Stem Project Authorization Act, streamlining regulations for projects, reducing wildfire risk, restoring healthy forests, and removing diseased and dead trees.
The act is currently being reintroduced, co-sponsored by Sens. Steve Daines, of Montana, and Diane Feinstein, of California, who often disagree on key issues.
Earlier this month, representatives Dan Newhouse and Scott Peters introduced the House companion bill. Newhouse represents the central Washington farm belt, and Peters’ district encompasses parts of San Diego. Both areas have been blanketed by choking wildfire smoke in recent years. That smoke is loaded with thick layers of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, plus ash.
The root of the roughly 60,000 wildfires that burn 8 million acres in the U.S. each year stems from a forest health crisis. In 2018, the Washington state Department of Natural Resources found 2.7 million acres across our state contain diseased and dying trees—wildfire hazards.
This year, the U.S. Forest Service estimates it will spend $1.53 billion fighting wildfires, leaving little money for thinning, planting, and debris removal. It prompted federal lawmakers to search for new approaches. They found one on the Colville National Forest in northeast Washington.
In 2018, the Forest Service’s funding was insufficient to thin densely packed timber stands until a broad-based group called A to Z Collaborative formed. It is a working coalition of conservationists, local government officials, business leaders, and foresters aided by Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rogers, who grew up in Kettle Falls. They agreed to a 54,000-acre forest restoration project.
Rodney Smoldon, Colville Forest supervisor, said the agency didn’t have the capacity to do all the necessary work to sustain forest health. Typically, the forest spends about $65 per thousand board feet for such a project. Under the A to Z Project, the cost is closer to $10 to $15 per thousand board feet.
After an exhaustive environmental review, the Forest Service awarded a contract to Vaagen Bros Lumber Co., a fourth-generation Washington company. Vaagen has expanded its operations in Colville to produce cross-laminated timber. Once wasted wildfire wood is now converted into state-of-the-art building materials.
CLT has many benefits. It’s fire resistant, stronger than conventional timber, reduces atmospheric carbon, offers more flexibility for seismic movement, and can revive depressed economies in rural communities.
The latest version of the Root & Stem Project Authorization Act would authorize the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to propose and enter into stewardship contracts and agreements prior to completion of environmental review. Hopefully, it will reduce time-consuming administrative appeals and costly litigation.
Creative cooperative approaches are needed for the 27,000 Washingtonians employed by our forest products industry. They are needed to improve air quality.
The bottom line is, when elected officials can solve problems cooperatively and find ways to generate revenue to support essential projects, it is a “win-win!” It also restores confidence in government.
With our national debt mushrooming—approaching $32 trillion—lawmakers would be wise to come together as often as possible.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer, and retired president of the Association of Washington Business. He now lives in Vancouver, Washington, and can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.
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