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The US Farm Bill Looks To Fight Wildfire

The House Agriculture Committee announced a tentative, late-November deal on the massive federal farm bill, with hopes to bring the bill to the floor the first week in December. But final negotiations over the legislation have focused on forests, not farms.

In the wake of deadly fires in California, several lawmakers have latched onto logging as a way to prevent future wildfires. OPB environmental reporter Tony Schick recently told OPB's "Weekend Edition" host John Notarianni that one proposal could lead to major changes in environmental regulations for federal forests. 

“Any time there's a large scale logging project, they have to go through an environmental review to gather outside input,” Schick said. “These rules would have either scaled those way back or created exemptions so that they didn’t need to be done.”

As of Dec. 1, it appeared the environmental rollbacks weren't in the final draft, but the farm bill is still expected to address wildfire prevention.

Democratic Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley has pushed for the expansion of a program to partner environmental groups with timber companies and local authorities to identify areas for forest restoration. 

“They’ll do thinning and they’ll do burning,” Schick says. “The idea is to restore healthy forests, turn a little bit of profit and reduce wildfire risk.”

National forests are indeed overgrown, which contributes to increased fuel for wildfires. But Schick says logging alone won’t solve the growing threat of wildfires.

“If you look at a lot of the fires in California, those didn’t occur because of logs and trees – they were brush fires.”

Schick says the largest challenge is simply keeping up with the growing accumulation of dry fuel in federal forests. Most of the work being done today is forest thinning, without prescribed burns. Schick says that’s a mistake.

“When you’re not prescribed burning after a thinning project, fire scientists say you’re not getting nearly as much effect. In certain conditions, it might actually be counter-productive because you’re leaving behind a lot of material that can still burn.”

Use the audio player above to hear the full conversation from OPB’s "Weekend Edition."

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John Notarianni, Tony Schick