A composite photo of Civilian Conservation Corps Company 3884, Camp NP-4-C, in Estes Park, 1939 (National Archives photo 175739271)

The 2020 wildfires brought America to a once-in-a-generation moment.

For years, most Americans have viewed forestry policy as reserved only for rural areas. Now, as the climate crisis worsens with massive infernos destroying our communities and blanketing the West in thick, lethal smoke, it’s no longer just those in the rural West facing the devastation. Summer after summer, every westerner lives and breathes this threat to life and well-being. 

Unfortunately, just weeks after much of the West erupted into flames during an unprecedented weather event, both sides of the forestry debate retreated to their corners. On one side, some in the timber industry would like to clearcut some national forest areas. On the other side, some would prefer to do nothing and let the forests burn. 

U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden

The family who lost their entire home and possessions won’t benefit from a debate with no resolution. Neither will the small-business owner who watched their business — and with it their life savings — burn to ash, or the family of the firefighter who lost their life to protect ours. 

Congress must not let common-sense wildfire policy get lost in the deluge of ideological posturing from a bygone era when we already know the solution. Public lands need an investment like never before. 

President Joe Biden has made it clear that addressing the climate crisis is a top priority for his administration, and we are eager to work with him. We believe that smart climate science is smart forestry science. 

Our 21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps legislation would create a much-needed stimulus for America’s public lands and rural economies by taking a page out of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s successful playbook and recreating the popular New Deal program. This would establish a strong, vital workforce on public lands with jobs that take on even greater importance as the COVID-19 health crisis continues to pummel the economy.

Our bill would more than double the federal budgets for hazardous fuels reduction projects, like controlled burns, on federally managed lands. This would help chip away at an enormous backlog of environmentally-reviewed projects. 

And because this work is required to be non-commercial, it is the public who would benefit  — not private interests.  

Our bill also would expand science-based forest management programs by more than doubling funding for the proven Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program

This flagship program for community-led forest restoration and fire risk reduction puts together scientists, foresters, environmentalists, and community leaders to design and implement wildfire resiliency projects that work best for their communities. And it provides increased public safety, improved habitat and a steady supply of lumber for local mills.  

Because wildfire risk mitigation requires an investment in infrastructure, our bill would more than double funding for federal programs that help local governments make homes and businesses more wildfire resilient through preparedness plans, fire-resistant building materials and defensible space. 

It’s long past time to include the voices of Native Americans, who, despite their deep knowledge and connection to the land, have been left out of the conversation after centuries of oppression and misguided, racist policies. 

Our bill would establish new forest resiliency programs at the Bureau of Indian Affairs to uphold the U.S. government’s unique treaty responsibilities and assist sovereign American Indian Tribes manage their ancestral lands like they’ve been doing for time immemorial.

Investments in farming infrastructure and habitat improvement projects must be a piece of this puzzle. Our bill would provide $10 billion for on-farm conservation projects to help farmers cope with the devastating effects of climate change and drought, and to help improve drinking water and wildlife habitat by reducing runoff, improving irrigation efficiency, and restoring habitat along river corridors. 

In an era of extreme polarization, the answer to the forestry debate is neither clearcuts, nor is it letting everything burn. Put simply, Americans don’t want their homes burned to a crisp, and they don’t want to lose America’s cherished natural treasures, either. 

The answer is putting people to work in the woods to manage our forests, supporting science-based hazardous fuels treatments, investing in the health of our watersheds and, ultimately, prioritizing keeping our communities safe.

If Congress passes our bill tomorrow, forests would be more resilient and federal land managers would have the resources to reduce wildfire risk. Neighborhoods would have safer homes and businesses, and cleaner air and water. Rural communities would have more jobs. 

The severity of wildfires in the West require an equally historic investment in our forest health. If Congress acts now, we can protect lives later. There is no time to waste. 

Joe Neguse, Democrat of Lafayette, represents Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, is the senior U.S. senator for Oregon. 

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