How Wyden’s River Democracy Act will help fight wildfires and climate change

Healthy, resilient rivers lead to healthy, resilient communities.

Oregon wildfires on Sept. 8, 2020 | Photo by Bureau of Land Management

Even as much of Oregon has barely begun the recovery process from last year’s catastrophic wildfires, this year’s fire season has gotten off to an early and ominous start. The Pomina fire in drought-stricken Klamath County — started in mid-April — is yet another sign that wildfires all across the West are starting earlier, burning hotter across larger areas, and burning later into the year than ever before. As of writing this post, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry, 350 individual fires have already sparked across our state. 

In a recent Instagram post, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden wrote, “This fire season has the potential to be the most devastating in our nation’s history. The climate crisis is here, and we’re living it.” The threats are so severe that Senator Wyden and fellow Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley have already sent a letter to federal agencies pressing them to “ensure our state has the resources it needs to fight these fires and keep communities safe.”

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Thankfully, Oregon’s senators have already been at work crafting legislation to bolster wildland firefighting and resources. In February, Senators Wyden and Merkley introduced federal legislation — the River Democracy Act — that will more than triple Oregon’s Wild and Scenic river miles and in doing so also strengthen wildfire preparedness statewide. On June 23, the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing on the bill, moving it one step closer to protecting more than 4,600 miles of Wild and Scenic rivers in Oregon. 

The River Democracy Act provides for stronger wildfire risk assessment and planning for homes and businesses near Wild and Scenic rivers, greater inter-agency coordination in fighting wildfire including with Native American Tribes, and more federal resources to repair wildfire damage to infrastructure, drinking water quality, and watersheds. The bill also provides $30,000,000 annually for Wild and Scenic Rivers that provide drinking water for downstream communities or those that have been degraded by catastrophic wildfire.

Western Drought Maps | Courtesy of New York Times
Western Drought Maps | Courtesy of New York Times

Most of us associate Wild and Scenic River designations with protecting the natural, recreational, cultural and ecological values of these waters — and we should. We should also understand the critical importance of national Wild and Scenic River designations as a tool to help us prepare and protect against an ever-increasing combined threat from catastrophic wildfire, warming climate, drought cycles and more people in harm’s way. Healthy, resilient rivers lead to healthy, resilient communities — and the importance of these life-giving rivers only becomes more vital in the face of climate change and fire seasons like the one we’re looking at this year.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Over the next several weeks, we’ll be sharing guest posts from people who have been — and still are — on the front lines. 

Stay tuned and stay safe. 

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