There is nothing like summer in Montana for a young man with a truck and a fly rod. Incredible fishing in any number of rivers, streams and lakes starts in the early spring and continues through the fall, especially if you’re willing to hike, wade and paddle your way into waters where the trout haven’t seen the same $1.99 foam hoppers swing by every day since June.
Norman Maclean could write a book about Montana summers today and not stray too far from the original text of A River Runs Through It. One can imagine, however, the shocked look on his face upon awakening to a Missoula valley drowned by smoke each July and August, so much so that the sun rises bright orange over Hellgate Canyon each morning. Homes burn, habitat is destroyed, and the constant thud of helicopters ferrying water to the blazes can be heard everywhere.
Catastrophic wildfires are threatening communities across the West. Now, however, Congress has the opportunity to do something about it.
Ordinary wildfires are constant in Western summers. We devour the morel mushrooms that spring up in burned areas each spring; we praise the brave men and women who dedicate their summers to cutting breaks, clearing brush and jumping out of rickety airplanes; and we bear the routine evacuations and air quality concerns without too much complaint. They are a part of life; indeed, Smokey Bear is as much of a cultural icon for us as Rosie the Riveter. Let us not forget that this is a vital ecological process. We know that fires are integral to healthy forest ecosystems. Typical wildfires eliminate weaker trees and saplings from the understory, push back the underbrush and clear the way for new plant life to emerge. This process is necessary – not only to the health of the forest but also to the game populations we prize, like mule deer, elk and ruffed grouse.
Catastrophic wildfires, which consume hundreds of thousands of acres and ravage communities, are an entirely different animal. These fires are a distinctly unnatural process resulting from climate change, insects and poor forestry management. Sen. John McCain referenced their origins recently while testifying before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, labeling them “manmade disasters” and calling for immediate reforms to the Forest Service’s suppression and prevention strategies.
One hundred and thirty-one other members of Congress also have expressed support for commonsense reforms like the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (S. 1875 and H.R. 3992) because they realize the severe ramifications of doing nothing. Indeed, the cost of wildfires today would be considerably lower if the Forest Service was able to effectively engage in its congressionally mandated activities. Legislation like the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would put an end to the practice of borrowing funds from vital programs integral to land management and fire prevention across the United States to pay for fire suppression costs.
Conservation is about doing what you can, when you can. Otherwise, the land suffers, and we who hunt and fish suffer with it. We have a responsibility to support efforts to advance sound, results-oriented conservation measures, and we cannot continue to allow the individuals we elect to play games with the lands we know and love. Check and see if your senator or representative supports a change for wildfire funding. If they don’t, make sure they know you do.
Walker Conyngham is TRCP’s Government Relations summer intern. He grew up fishing the streams and creeks of Western Montana and is entering his junior year at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.