As the loss of 19 men in the Yarnell (Arizona) Hill Fire last year brought to the fore last year, there are many breaches in fortification against wildland fires, both for those who fight the conflagration and for those in nearby communities whom firefighters seek to protect.
Loss of life certainly eclipses the staggering economic impact of the undermanagement of forests such as the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, yet it is clear that the risks to life and limb and the local economy are forever intertwined.
As more federal budget is redirected to fight fire, especially in the west, it is incumbent that eastern regions including Wisconsin and Michigan use other tools to support forest and economic health.
Healthy communities in northern Wisconsin and healthy wood and paper industries throughout the state depend upon a healthy forested landscape, including the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. There is a valuable tool to support healthy forests and economies that Congress must consider: the renewal of stewardship contracting authority.
When authorized by Congress, stewardship contracting authority allows the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), in association with state and local governments, Tribal agencies, and non-governmental organizations such as economic development corporations, to enter into long-term contracts with private companies or communities to carry out projects that can reduce the risk to forest health and in turn stimulate better economic health.
Chief among these projects is forest thinning, which benefits the health of the forest while generating economic support, in the form of jobs, for nearby communities and providing project partners with forest products to support industry.
Stewardship has its detractors; there are those that would rather invest their time eliminating the Natural Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), or cannot see the light as to how local municipalities can actually come out ahead employing Stewardship agreements.
Still others propose having other governmental or even private entities take over national forest management at least in part; however, such a step would not eliminate the requirements of NEPA. Such a move would also be unacceptable to Tribal agencies, as well as many other environmentally-oriented organizations.
We also don't need funding to simply study the problem. There seem to be opportunistic groups waiting to siphon valuable funds to provide studies. The problems and solutions are obvious to those that have invested their time understanding them. Just recently, firms in Michigan and North Carolina have been enriched with Wisconsin taxpayer dollars on such ventures.
There is a bill before the United States Senate, S. 1300, the Stewardship Contracting Reauthorization and Improvements Act that needs to be acted upon immediately.
The legislation provides for a 10-year extension for federal agencies to enter into Stewardship agreements. The bill also provides the USFS flexibility when holding funds in reserve to compensate its partners in the event a contract is canceled.
In part, the bill will allow for long-term agreements for road and trail maintenance, habitat for wildlife and fisheries, removing vegetation or other activities to promote healthy forest stands, watershed restoration and maintenance, and control of noxious and exotic weeds.
As USFS Chief Tom Tidwell noted, more than 40 percent of the national forest is in need of thinning treatment. That is a staggering figure; unless Congress acts, the authority to enter into these agreements will end this month and an important tool will be lost.
Senator Baldwin, a member of the U.S. Senate Natural Resources Committee, voted favorably on S. 1300 in committee.
Wisconsin voters need to encourage Senator Ron Johnson, who has been largely silent on this issue, to support this measure when it reaches the full Senate.
There is no room for fringe political interests hijacking something so crucial. Improved forest and economic health are also dependent on our U.S. House membership for support when the bill moves there.
Finally, President Obama's signature will be necessary to put the stewardship authority to work for forest and economic health for the next ten years.
When it comes to restoring forest and economic health we need all the tools at our disposal. Congress should waste no time in providing every advantage to those that depend upon a healthy national forest, economically vibrant communities, and sustainable local schools.