It’s becoming a devastating “new normal.” Megafires raging across the American West, destroying homes and businesses, displacing wildlife, polluting water supplies, and scarring landscapes. In Nevada, a fire in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest burned nearly 70,000 acres in July, and overall in the U.S. More than six million acres were destroyed by fire. It’s likely that American taxpayers will have to pay $20 billion to clean up and repair the damage caused by these climate-fueled disasters.
The rangeland fires are becoming more frequent and more intense. Often the blazes are fueled by invasive cheatgrass, which now spreads across more than 100 million acres of the West. The cheatgrass starts growing early in the spring, depriving more fire-resistant native grasses of the nutrients they need to survive. In Nevada, some 3,000 pounds of cheatgrass grow per acre of rangeland, according to the Bureau of Land Management. Once the cheatgrass has dried out in summer, it becomes a “super fuel” for large megafires that spread rapidly, putting wildlife and rural communities at great peril.
In the past, leaders at the state and federal levels have wanted to do more about removing cheatgrass and preventing these wildfires, but they were hampered by a lack of funding. Fortunately, that is all about to change. Congress has passed one bill and is poised to pass another that would help restore our grasslands and forests to reduce the risks of wildfire. President Biden is about to sign the bipartisan infrastructure bill that includes a provision to extend a federal program that restores forests and grasslands, reduces wildfire risk, and protects water supplies. For example, last year the program provided $250 million for the restoration of wildlife habitat, watersheds, and rangelands on federal and private lands that were destroyed in the South Sugarloaf Fire in Nevada. That kind of investment is a good first step but if we really want to protect our communities, restore our grasslands, and create good jobs, Congress must also pass the Build Back Better Act.
This second bill contains historic investments to repair and restore natural infrastructure, such as grasslands and forests. It will increase funding at the Bureau of Land Management for shovel-ready projects to get rid of cheatgrass, clean up watersheds, and restore healthy wildlife habitats. Those initiatives will not only create conservation and restoration jobs, but it will spur the recreation economy as access and opportunities for hunting, fishing, and other outdoor pursuits are expanded. By some estimates, for every dollar spent in restoration, $15 dollars will be generated in economic activity.
In addition, investing in rangeland restoration helps save landowners and local governments money by investing in wildfire prevention, which is far less costly than paying to fight fires or rebuilding after fires have destroyed property. It is exactly the kind of investment in resilience that our communities need right now.
It’s critical that Congress act now to pass the Build Back Better Act. It will put Nevadans back to work restoring our public lands. It will safeguard our iconic Western landscapes and rural communities from increasingly frequent megafires. And it will ensure that our children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy Nevada’s cherished outdoor heritage.
Senators Cortez-Masto and Rosen: please support the Build Back Better Act. The future of Nevada depends on it.
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