We Can End the Era of Megafires

Jennifer Fielder is a State Senator from Thompson Falls, Montana and currently serves as CEO of the national nonprofit American Lands Council.

Over 10,000 people each year are hospitalized due to wildfire smoke-related heart and lung problems, as many as 2,500 are dying prematurely. Billions of dollars of private and public property are being destroyed in western wildfires annually. Federal employees and so-called environmentalists are attempting to “teach” us to simply accept this era of “megafires,” an era that they themselves created.

It is no secret that most wildfires could be prevented or slowed by better access for initial attack and preemptive fuel reduction strategies that employ responsible logging, thinning and grazing on federally controlled public lands. As the old adage goes, “log it, graze it, or watch it burn.”  Responsible vegetation management combined with preservation of public access routes actually reduce the risk of wildfire. While at the same time improving the health of the forest, enhancing wildlife habitat, providing abundant recreation opportunities and creating beneficial cash flow for our local, state and national economies.

The problem is not due to a lack of knowledge. The problem is that federal land management agencies are saddled with so much nonsensical bureaucracy they simply can not do what needs to be done. Oddly enough, it is the environmental community and federal courts colluding to block beneficial wildfire prevention activities. While science validates the startling reality of their “lock it up and let it burn” mentality, the political left continues to deny the plain and simple truth.

For decades the west has borne the brunt of these counterproductive and misguided federal land management policies. In the last few decades, the federal government has obliterated thousands of miles of access roads on public lands, halted almost all logging and grazing and deliberately allowed billions of dollars of valuable timber and rangeland to go up in smoke.

A very recent study by Georgia Tech revealed that the volume of harmful chemicals released from that smoke is far greater than previously estimated. Another study published in the journal Science of the Total Environment confirmed, “The public health burden of wildland fires—in terms of the number and economic value of deaths and illnesses—is considerable.”

It is time to restore balance and accountability in the way our public lands are managed. President Trump’s efforts to eliminate unnecessary regulations, return power to the states and reform how our public lands and resources are governed are a welcome step in the right direction.

We must not lose sight of the fact that Presidential administrations are subject to change every four years. All the good progress that may be made this term can be reversed just as quickly. That is why it is absolutely critical to secure constitutionally sound solutions that will stand the test of time regardless of who occupies the White House or the Congress.

The surest way to get there is to transfer much of the federally-controlled public land to willing states. This would remove layers of federal bureaucracy and shift control to more accountable, locally-driven land managers. By bringing land management decisions home where they belong, we can get back to the basics of managing public lands with common sense. After all, wise land management in the west isn’t rocket science, it’s a vital way of life for those of us who live here.

Just think about it – who knows the land and cares for it more than the people who live nearest to it? When western forests erupt in a wildfire, it is the people who live nearby who deal with the devastation.

Consider the story of Montana’s wildland firefighting teams who were actually ordered by the federal government to stand down when lightning started a series of small fires last summer. Montana state foresters have been repeatedly barred from putting out wildfires on “federal” land. The reason? Montana’s helicopters, which have an unblemished safety record, travel faster and carry more water than the federal aircraft do, were not on the federal agency’s “list of approved equipment.” Had those puff balls been extinguished by state teams when they were small and controllable, they would not have erupted into the multi-million dollar “federal” disasters that ensued.

That is where the American Lands Council (ALC) comes in. ALC is a nationwide network of elected officials, skilled professionals, and grassroots activists working on constitutionally-sound legislative, judicial and executive remedies to permanently secure accountable, sensible governance of our public lands.

Moving forward through the courts and Congress is just as important as working with the executive branch. Thanks to the Utah legislature, a huge lawsuit is mounting in favor of the fundamental principle that States have a right to be treated equally. When a distant federal bureaucracy controls over half of all lands in the western United States, and less than five percent in eastern states, we have a noticeable disparity.

In fact, the federal government has no constitutional authority to retain control of so much land within any State. However, Congress does have the explicit constitutional power to transfer public lands to States (see U.S. Constitution Article 4 Section 3 Clause 2). In fact, they have done so many times, in many states.

If the issue is pressed forward at the U.S. Supreme Court and the court does indeed agree that Congress cannot retain so much land inside a state forever and ever, the court is not likely to tell Congress how to divest itself of title to the land, only that they must.

ALC is working on a universal federal bill that will allow each State to prioritize which pieces of federal land they seek to acquire first, and to set a schedule so that incremental transfers could occur over time as the State is ready to responsibly take on the management of new areas. The bill we propose would require the States to protect any valid existing rights associated with the transferred lands, such as mineral rights, grazing leases and water rights. The bill would also require states to coordinate with affected counties to ensure management goals for the transferred lands are consistent with the county’s adopted resource management plan. Finally, revenue from timber or other resources would be shared between the state and county where the land is located and with a significant portion set aside for wildfire control.

Transferring federally controlled public lands to willing states will result in better access, better health and better productivity and will benefit the entire nation. It’s a logical, constitutionally sound solution that only needs good people to step forward in support.

That is the mission of ALC. To learn more visit www.AmericanLandsCouncil.org

In Depth: Federalism

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