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Merkley works for fire research funding

While $6 million doesn't sound like a lot, it could provide answers to some lingering questions around fire management decisions.

Sen. Jeff MerkleyU.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley is in Oregon this week travelling around the state to attend conferences, town halls and other events to hear from constituents and stakeholder groups.

Merkley stopped by OCI partner Pamplin Media Group Thursday to talk about his work as one of the lead Democrats on the Senate Appropriations Committee, the group that oversees all discretionary spending by the U.S. Senate.

Among the many items the committee is hoping to be approved by the full Senate in the coming weeks is a $6 million increase for the Joint Fire Science Program based in Boise, Idaho, which supports high-priority fire research.

While $6 million doesn't sound like a lot considering the Oregon Governor's Council on Wildfire's recently asserted that Oregon alone will need around $4 billion to bring the state's fire response, suppression and readiness into the 21st century, it could provide answers to some lingering questions around fire management decisions.

Merkley told Pamplin Media that he has tuned into conversations around whether thinning of forests — the strategic removal of trees — reduces fire risk. While conventional fire management would say yes, thinning does reduce risk, Merkley spoke with experts at the Northwest Climate Conference 2019 this week in Portland who aren't convinced thinning is good for Oregon's forests.

"They said their concern is when you create that additional space you get more air movement that dries out the trees faster, and you actually make them more vulnerable to catching fire," Merkley said.

The other question Merkley hopes might be answered by further investment into research at the Joint Fire Science Program is whether or not investments made in fire response versus investments in mitigation such as prescribed burns yield a better return for states like Oregon that have in recent summers been throttled by forest fire smoke.

"Prescribed burns produce smoke, but not nearly as much as smoke as a full raging fire," he said.

Merkley's hopeful the $6 million increase in funding for the Joint Fire Science Program will provide answers to some of those questions in the form of research grants to programs like Oregon State University's College of Forestry and others throughout the west zeroing in on best practices.

Paired with the news that OSU is preparing a proposal they plan to pitch to the Oregon Land Board in December to turn the Elliott State Forest into a research forest, any additional funding toward the study of fire and forest management practices is a step in the right direction for Oregon and its forested neighbors.