Wyden Introduces Bill to Make Major Investments in Public Health, Wildfire Prevention and Rural Jobs as Part of COVID-19 Economic Stimulus Efforts

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., today introduced legislation that would bolster wildfire prevention and preparedness to protect the health and safety of communities during the unparalleled combination of threats posed by wildfire season and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The legislation also would provide relief and job creation measures that equip rural economies to respond to the unique threats they’re facing during this public health and economic crisis.

“A historic global pandemic that’s still raging at the start of wildfire season adds up to a prescription for major problems in the months ahead to public health and rural jobs in Oregon and nationwide,” Wyden said. “This legislation takes that pair of problems head-on with a comprehensive attack that connects all the dots with a 21st century Conservation Corps and more to protect health and save jobs.”

The impacts of COVID-19 on public health and the economy, combined with high levels of drought throughout the West, create unprecedented wildland firefighting challenges in 2020. Those at increased risk for adverse health effects due to wildfire smoke exposure – people who suffer from heart or respiratory diseases – are also particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. The crisis also quickly brought the outdoor economy to a halt. Many forest workers, despite their essential work, were laid off and others, like outfitters and guides who rely on tourism and outdoor recreation, are unable to work during their busy season.

Wyden’s 21st Century Conservation Corps for Our Health and Our Jobs Act will provide significant investment in wildfire prevention and resiliency efforts; programs that can get rural Americans back to work when it’s deemed safe by public health experts to do so; direct relief for outfitters and guides; as well as extensive resources for watershed restoration. The legislation:

·       Provides an additional $3.5 billion for the U.S. Forest Service and $2 billion for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to increase the pace and scale of hazardous fuels reduction and thinning efforts, prioritizing projects that are shovel-ready and environmentally-reviewed;

·       Establishes a $7 billion relief fund to help outfitters and guides who hold U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Department of the Interior special use permits – and their employees – stay afloat through the truncated recreation season;

·       Establishes a $9 billion fund for qualified land and conservation corps to increase job training and hiring specifically for jobs in the woods, helping to restore public lands and watersheds, while providing important public health related jobs in this time of need;

·       Provides an additional $150 million for the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, the flagship program for community forest restoration and fire risk reduction;

·       Provides $6 billion for U.S. Forest Service capital improvements and maintenance to put people to work reducing the maintenance backlog on National Forest System lands, including reforestation;

·       Provides $500 million for the Forest Service State and Private Forestry program, which will be divided between programs to help facilitate landscape restoration projects on state, private and federal lands, including $100 million for the Firewise program to help local governments plan for and reduce wildfire risks;

·       Provides $10 billion for on-farm water conservation and habitat improvement projects;

·       Provides full and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has broad bipartisan support; and

·       Provides $100 million for land management agencies to purchase and provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to their employees, contractors and service workers.

A one-page summary is available here.

A section-by-section summary is available here.

A copy of the legislative text is available here.

A web version of this release is here.

Gopal Allada, M.D., Associate Professor of Medicine in the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, Oregon Health & Sciences University (OHSU) School of Medicine, and Director of the Adult Cystic Fibrosis Program at OHSU: “Wildfire smoke contains a variety of particulate matter that poses a public health threat, especially for those with underlying pulmonary conditions, such as asthma, chronic bronchitis and emphysema (COPD). These individuals are more likely to have prolonged effects, and in some cases, irreversible damage with persistent and/or repeated exposures. The benefits of reducing particulate matter in the air are immense. The passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970 and subsequent reductions in major air pollutants reduced the number of heart attacks, hospital admissions and mortality. Further reductions would not only have a direct impact on health outcomes, but significant impact in health care costs to society.”

Joe Whitworth, President, The Freshwater Trust: “With smart investments in our family farms, community water supplies, outfitters, and wildfire risk reduction, we can collaboratively build the dependable rural jobs and greater resiliency we will need in our ever-changing world. The funding provided by this proposal would get people back to work on the land, in the woods, and on the water. It would create new federal partnerships that build on the can-do spirit of communities across the country, and at the right scale and speed that can truly make a difference with the problems we face right now.”

Matt Wade, Advocacy and Policy Director, American Mountain Guides Association: “Rock climbing, mountaineering, and backcountry skiing guides around the country are experiencing grave circumstances as the COVID-19 crisis is affecting their ability to provide educational courses and guided trips on public lands. Senator Wyden’s bill will help guides across the country weather the storm and be poised to help people from all walks of life experience the outdoors when public lands open again. We are extremely grateful for Senator Wyden’s support at this critical time.”

Mary Ellen Sprenkel, President and CEO, The Corps Network: “During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt said that no country can afford the waste of human resources. His response was to put Americans to work through popular and successful programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps. In response to this current crisis, a bold investment in Youth and Conservation Corps would offer a solution to rising youth unemployment. By engaging young people and veterans in service to our country, Corps can improve public lands and communities and provide training in the skills needed for a bright future. We extend our appreciation to Senator Wyden for championing the critical role that Corps can play in helping our country through these unprecedented times.”

Aaron Bannon, Executive Director, American Outdoors Association: “Outfitters and guides have been hit hard by the current crisis, and unlike other industrial sectors, they will not have a chance to recover when the crisis subsides due to the seasonal nature of the industry. The relief in this bill will keep the sustainable recreation economy alive, which is important to so many Americans who value the great outdoors.”

Daniel Courtney, Chairman, Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Tribe of Indians: “We are grateful to Senator Wyden for his attention to struggling tribal communities and for this long overdue relief offered during these difficult times. The funding will restore the health of our overcrowded forests while providing a much needed shot in the arm to the economy of our local community.”

Kameran Onley, Director of U.S. Government Relations, The Nature Conservancy: “We commend Senator Wyden for proposing to invest in rural America through the conservation of natural resources in our forests, fields, rangelands, rivers and streams. Never have Americans valued our lands and waters more, turning to nature for comfort in this time of isolation and economic hardship. The Nature Conservancy appreciates Senator Wyden’s efforts to prioritize investments in programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund that have a proven track record of delivering lasting conservation outcomes while also driving local economies.”

Jim Desmond, Oregon State Director, The Nature Conservancy: “Oregon, like much of the West, will soon face another wildfire season, but forest restoration and other efforts to prepare against this threat are being stalled by the pandemic. Senator Wyden’s proposal will provide critical relief to rural communities at greater risk of lost revenues and higher levels of respiratory diseases this wildfire season. Senator Wyden deserves praise for his swift and comprehensive approach to addressing the needs of our rural communities that are heavily dependent on natural resources.”

Zach Collier, Owner/Outfitter, Northwest Rafting Company: “Due to COVID-19 closures, outfitting and guiding has come to a screeching halt right when our busy season was scheduled to begin. Senator Wyden’s bill keeps the guiding industry afloat while investing in recreation infrastructure and the health and resiliency of our forests. This bill will allow me to keep river guides employed improving our public lands immediately.”

Louis Geltman, Policy Director, Outdoor Alliance: “As our country navigates the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the opportunity to get into the outdoors has been a fleeting bit of solace for many Americans. At the same time, the crisis has demonstrated the need for better recreation infrastructure, especially close to home, and addressing that unmet demand presents tremendous opportunities to put Americans to work building resources that will be of lasting value to communities. Outdoor Alliance applauds Senator Wyden’s leadership in recognizing the tremendous value of our public lands and waters in helping our country recover from this crisis.”

Thomas O’Keefe, Pacific Northwest Stewardship Director, American Whitewater: “A leader on public lands and rivers conservation over many years, Senator Wyden understands that our public lands are essential to our physical and mental health. As we face the unprecedented challenges of the current public health crisis, we appreciate the Senator’s leadership in advancing legislation to invest in public lands and the outdoor recreation economy.”

Tyson Bertone-Riggs, Policy Analyst, Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition: “In the wake of a devastating economic and public health crisis, restoring and maintaining America’s watersheds, forests and grasslands will be vital to providing new economic opportunities. This bill not only proposes to create much-needed jobs in rural communities, but will also help to overcome some of the most pressing natural resource problems facing the West. This legislation directly addresses critical needs including fire risk reduction, watershed restoration, habitat conservation, and support for the imperiled outfitter guide business community. This bill also puts rural communities front and center by encouraging contracting that supports local business and allows rural community groups to be full partners in restoration projects and job creation. The Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition (RVCC) thanks Senator Wyden for his leadership and unwavering commitment to communities and the land.”

Nils Christoffersen, Executive Director, Wallowa Resources: “This is a comprehensive package addressing wildfire risk and forest restoration, as well as stimulus to rural economies and support for workforce development. Senator Wyden’s bill is an investment in solving some of the most pressing challenges for rural communities near National Forests. It is a strong, proactive move to support rural Oregon during these economically uncertain times.”

Dylan Kruse, Director of Government Affairs & Program Strategy, Sustainable Northwest: “Sustainable Northwest commends Senator Wyden for introduction of this ambitious and urgently needed legislation. This bill will provide immediate resources to support thousands of good-paying jobs in our forest and recreation sectors, rebuild aging infrastructure, protect communities from wildfire, and ensure that everyone has access to clean and plentiful water. Not only will this bill put Oregonians back to work, but it makes smart, bipartisan investments in a safer, healthier, and stronger state for decades to come.”

Susan Jane M. Brown, Staff Attorney, Western Environmental Law Center: “Reinvesting in America’s public lands is a win for all of us who work and play on these lands. This legislation will provide important support for critical programs that are essential to stewardship of our national forests, parks, and other public lands.”

Marko Bey, Executive Director, Lomakatsi Restoration Project: “As Southern Oregon continues to grapple with the frequency and severity of wildfire, there is an urgent need to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration across watersheds. This legislation would provide much needed funding to get more forest restoration on the ground within shovel-ready projects throughout the Rogue Basin and beyond, to reduce hazardous fuel loading and mitigate the risk of wildfire to communities, while also protecting ecosystem services. At the same time, this funding would create long-term jobs and workforce training opportunities for youth and adults, while boosting local economies in rural, forest-based communities. This funding is a win-win for people and nature, and is essential for making our communities safer from wildfire risks that will only continue to grow.”

Vernon Stearns, President, Intertribal Timber Commission: “Tribal economies have been devastated by COVID-19, which has closed some of the largest tribal enterprises. Tribal timber production is more important than ever to tribal economies and generates revenue for essential services like healthcare.”

Bob Rees, Executive Director, NW Guides and Anglers Association: “As an industry well invested in urban to rural economics, Senator Wyden’s bill answers the urgency rural communities have been calling for during these challenging times. Bringing these dollars to the woods, farms and waters of Oregon will have a real impact. It will give our collective communities the opportunity to rebuild our infrastructure, better secure our landscape and re-build our businesses that have been devastated by depressed fish runs and compromised opportunity. We’re extremely grateful that the Senator has the foresight to understand what this investment means to all Oregonians.”

Brian Sykes, President, Oregon Outfitters & Guides Association: “Most outfitters and guides in Oregon are small businesses, independent contractors or sole proprietors; and a significant number of these have already suffered significant financial loss due to COVID-19 closures. Providing assistance for struggling outfitters is crucial for providing employment and supporting local businesses (often in rural areas) and providing a service for members of the public who otherwise might not have access to the outdoors. Fees generated by outfitter business are also important for supporting local trail and facility maintenance. Another important priority of this bill is the substantial support it provides for hazardous fuels management. Wildfires have a severe and direct impact on outdoor recreation in general and outfitters and guides in particular.”

Aaron Lieberman, Executive Director, Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association: “The outfitting and guiding industry finds itself in a uniquely precarious situation due to novel coronavirus. Bookings are spiraling and anticipated losses compounding. Our industry is central to rural economies across the country. In Idaho alone, outfitters and guides generate over 1 billion dollars per year. There is a real and immediate need in our industry, and the rural economies our industry supports, for this initiative being proposed by Senator Wyden. Like the proposed bill to be introduced by Senator Daines across the aisle, it demonstrates a recognition of our industry’s centrality to rural economies, to recreational opportunities, and to the ethos of the American West and our nation.” 

Pete Wallstrom, Guide/Owner, Momentum River Expeditions; Upper Klamath Outfitters Association: “Outfitted outdoor recreation in our region has grown and thrived in the last decade and is a bright spot in our rural economies, providing sustainable jobs and career opportunities and introducing people to our incredible public lands. However, COVID 19 could decimate many of the small businesses that make up the industry and cause long term damage to our local rural economies. This bill will support our public lands and the many communities and businesses that depend on them by supporting outfitters, critical forest resiliency and wildfire projects, and the backlog of trail and facility maintenance projects. It would provide critical short term help and be a long term win for the region. We strongly support this bill.”

Erik Weiseth, Managing Partner/River Guide, Orange Torpedo Trips – Whitewater Cowboys – The Paddled Pub – Salmon River Challenge: “Outfitting and guiding is an industry we are in because we love it. We love showing people the incredible places we operate. We love inspiring kids to explore the world and step away from their screens. We love watching families bond as they float out of cell phone range and into conversations with each other. We love sharing what are some of the most impactful travel moments of people’s lives. All of this could end. It is commonly believed that without significant changes in current travel capabilities or other alternative revenue options more than 25 percent of outfitters could cease to be in business next year. The ripple effect of that loss could be catastrophic in rural tourism based economies and for states with growing tourism markets. This bill will allow outfitters an opportunity to weather this storm while also serving to help improve and protect the places we already operate. It will allow us to continue as anchors of rural economies, creators of future advocates of natural resources, and employers of thousands. This is more than investment in us, it is an investment in our communities that will have long term returns.”