By Tom Martin It was a challenging year for the West. Temperatures were higher than normal. The region experienced the fourth year of a drought. Record low snowpacks resulted in low reservoir storages levels from Oregon to Arizona. States such as California set water restrictions and asked residents to consume 25 percent less water.
On top of this, the West experienced one of the worse wildfire seasons in history. More than 9.1 million acres burned due to wildfire, a level reached only four times on record. These forest fires only highlighted the importance of water for westerners.
Yet people are not seeing that these two stories are linked.
If we are to protect the limited water supply for westerners, we must protect the forests that support clean water from being decimated by wildfire.
What most people don’t realize is forests play an intimate role with clean water. Forests act as a natural water filter and storage system, keeping water clear, regulating streamflow and reducing flooding.
Though only 31 percent of the West is forested, 65 percent of the public water supply comes from forests. In fact, nearly 64 million westerners get their clean drinking supply from surface water that comes from these forests, whether they are publicly or privately owned.
While policy makers cannot fix the drought, they can help ensure the limited water we have is clean by prioritizing protecting our forests and forested watersheds.
A new report from the American Forest Foundation unveiled an opportunity to do just that. It shows that, contrary to popular thinking, 40 percent, or 13.5 million acres, of the forests and other lands in important watersheds that are at a high risk of catastrophic wildfire across the West are private and family-owned.
The report also found these landowners want to do the right thing. Citing polling data from Public Opinion Strategies, it found family landowners are motivated to take action to reduce the threat of wildfire and help protect clean water. However, what prevents most from doing so is the high cost of implementing management actions.
Thankfully, there are near-term solutions that Congress can implement to support these landowners and thereby reduce wildfire risk.
First, we need Congress to fix how it pays for firefighting. The cost to fight wildfires continues to grow. As of September, the bill exceeded $1 billion for this year.
Under the current structure, the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior are forced to fund their firefighting program at the expense of others, many of which are designed to get ahead of the wildfire problem. Even with this, firefighting budgets are still not usually enough. Therefore, the agencies must go back and borrow funds from these same programs to pay the firefighting bill.
To avoid this vicious cycle, Congress should treat wildfire fighting the same way it treats other disaster funding, especially for the extremely large and costly fires that need the most support.
Second, our policy makers need to find opportunities to stimulate forest restoration across boundaries that incorporate private and family lands into the mix. Currently, authorities and programs exist for collaborative efforts to reduce wildfire risk. But, most are implemented across public lands (federal and state), and do not often include private lands. With forest ownership resembling a patchwork in West, conducting forest restoration across an entire region will help raise the resilience of the entire forest.
Lastly, it is important to recognize there will never be enough public funding available to solve the entire wildfire problem. Instead, we must find ways to create markets that help landowners earn the necessary income that reduces the costs of wildfire mitigation and forest restoration, thus making ongoing healthy forest management efforts both ecological and economical.
If Congress implements these recommendations, we will address two serious issues in the West: reducing wildfire risk on private and family lands and protecting the limited clean water supply.
Tom Martin is president and CEO of the American Forest Foundation.