Common sense protection for Crooked River Ranch

September 27, 2017

Another fire season, and another summer in Central Oregon choked with smoke, and homes threatened by wildfires on federal land. A similar situation has played out across our great state this summer. Dense fuel loads from a lack of management leave a tinderbox in our forests waiting to ignite, which happened yet again this year and filled Central Oregon’s air with smoke.

Between Aug. 18 and Sept. 8, people in Sisters had only one day when the Air Quality Index was above “Unhealthy.” That day was “Moderate.” Six days were “Very Unhealthy,” and three were “Hazardous.” Poor air quality forced the cancellation of the Sisters Folk Festival, and the first-ever cancellation of Cycle Oregon — the 2017 route winding right through the heart of Central Oregon.

This is the result of fires burning over 678,000 acres across Oregon in 2017. Schools have closed; structures have been destroyed, and Oregonians have been forced to evacuate their communities. In the midst of it all, the many residents of Crooked River Ranch look to the dense juniper and sagebrush on the neighboring federal land and wonder, will we be next?

They’ve done their part by thinning and trimming junipers to create defensible space around their homes. Unfortunately, encumbered by the red tape of a Wilderness Study Area (WSA), the federal government on the adjacent Bureau of Land Management-managed land has not done its part, leaving the community in harm’s way. I’m working to change that, and legislation to do so is moving forward in the House.

Crooked River Ranch — a community of about 5,500 residents in Jefferson County — sits directly adjacent to a WSA managed by the BLM. The boundary of the WSA — made up of dense juniper stands, sagebrush and other combustible material — borders more than 250 properties, leaving no barrier between the flames and the people who live there if a fire ever broke out.

Despite BLM’s determination that the WSA adjacent to Crooked River Ranch is not suitable for wilderness, WSAs are managed for “wilderness characteristics.” Because of that requirement, BLM is greatly limited in basic fire-prevention and fuel-mitigation activities. Talk to local fire officials and first responders — those who would be on the front lines protecting Crooked River Ranch from a catastrophic fire — and they’ll describe just how dangerous the situation is.

Crooked River Ranch Fire Chief Harry Ward told me during a meeting and tour at Crooked River Ranch in August that “practical firefighting and fire-prevention activities are unavailable” with the current WSA boundary. Sheriff Jim Adkins echoes Ward, warning “current WSA restrictions make it impossible for the fire crew to enter the area and fight the wildfire with modern techniques.” Only Congress can remove this designation, and it is time for my colleagues to heed the community’s calls for action.

My legislation — the Crooked River Ranch Fire Protection Act — makes very targeted, common sense changes to allow for practical management of the fire fuels that surround Crooked River Ranch. This legislation simply moves the WSA boundary a few hundred yards back to the canyon rim, giving firefighters the defensive space they need to help save the Crooked River Ranch community from the potential of a devastating wildfire.

Adjusting the WSA boundary can save lives and property on Crooked River Ranch and ensure firefighters’ lives aren’t put in further danger. I am glad this bill has advanced through the Natural Resources Committee on a bipartisan vote, and I look forward to its passage in the full House of Representatives soon.

— Greg Walden is a Republican congressman whose district includes Central and Eastern Oregon.