Public lands are our national treasure

Posted by Renee Magyar on September 23, 2013

Let's keep them that way

A glorious view of Mount Hood from the Timberline Trail

Every year I look forward to summer and early fall, when I venture into the outdoors as much as I can.  I think one could spend a lifetime exploring all the trails this region has to offer, and still not get to everything out there.

This past weekend I embarked on my last backpacking trip of the season.  I went to the Mount Hood Wilderness and I was confronted by idyllic meadows and astonishing views of the mountain. But in contrast to this beauty and grandeur, I also encountered evidence of nature in duress. Two fires had struck the northern part of the wilderness in the last six years, scorching the lands north of the mountain and rendering those trails pathways in a vast wasteland. Meanwhile, glacial melt had caused a huge flood that washed out the trail and landscape seven years ago. The trail still isn't back; my journey ended there.  

Trails, wildernesses, and other public lands are meant to be enjoyed by everyone. As free, egalitarian resources, they are part of what makes us truly great and unique as a nation. They also give us the clean air, water, timber, and wildlife habitat that our nation and communities depend on. Now, they're in trouble.

The climate and environment are changing, and wildfire is becoming a serious issue throughout the West. Wildfire has, and will continue to be, a normal part of many forests. However, overcrowded stands of trees, drought, invasive species, and decades of fire suppression are now causing fire to behave in a very abnormal way. Thankfully, many people are doing something about it.

Right now, Sustainable Northwest is working with partner organizations and the U.S. House and Senate to keep land management funds allocated where they should be - in land management. The challenge is that abnormal fire has become so urgent it is consuming both lands and budgets.  Some sobering statistics appeared in a recent press release (see pdf below):

  • This past decade, wildfires have burned 57% more land than in the last four decades
  • The fire season has expanded by two months
  • The average size of fires has increased by a factor of five since the 1970s

Consequently, the Forest Service and Department of Interior have been exceeding their firefighting budgets, and $2.8 billion in restoration and management funds have been transferred to meet firefighting needs over the last 10 years. This season, $636 million has already been transferred, leading to objections from nearly 100 groups. Sustainable Northwest and a coalition of partners sent letters to both the House and Senate asking for a reimbursement of funds and calling for a new funding mechanism in the future. We hope that Congress responds and makes necessary changes to end the cycle of harmful fire borrowing.

"Protecting communities and forests now is critical -- but so is avoiding future severe wildfires through appropriate and active forest management," said John Audley, Sustainable Northwest's Executive Director, in the press release issued by the National Association of State Foresters. "Responsible management of our national forests means caring for both present and future needs."

Taking care of our public lands before more of them go up in smoke, get washed away, or overrun by invasive species is imperative. A recent poll shows that the public firmly agrees.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof eloquently talks more about the plight of our public lands in a recent blog, "Beauty and the Beasts." Read it. After that, go out and enjoy the fresh air and the woods and the streams and the mountains and the meadows. They're part of your heritage, and mine.

Dimitra Giannakoulias is Operations and Communications Associate at Sustainable Northwest.