Bill would allow management of forest fire fuel loads

May 18, 2012


Several state representatives have joined together to propose changes in the way public land is managed in areas where wildlands meet up with urban areas.

The legislation would bypass many of the regulatory steps currently required under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act, and allow an expedited process for logging and grazing to reduce fuel loads.

Congressman Paul Gosar, R-AZ, was joined by 27 other U.S. House of Representative members in drafting H.R. 5744, or the “Catastrophic Wildfire Prevention Act of 2012” legislation. If passed, it would expedite the review and approval process for thinning and grazing projects near communities that are at risk from wildfires. The new law would affect the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), enabling them to use emergency provisions of existing regulations to expedite grazing and forest thinning projects.

The legislation is designed to speed up what has typically been a long drawn out process that can span several years. If a project requires an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), it would have to be prepared within 30 days in certain areas.

According to Public Lands Council President John Falen, H.R. 5744 will allow forest lands to be responsibly managed to prevent catastrophic wildfires that put human and animal health and safety at risk while costing economies severely.

“Decades of mismanagement and convoluted environmental regulation have left our nation’s vast forest lands one spark away from a catastrophic wildfire. In many parts of the nation, these forests, which have historically provided grazing land for livestock and habitat to wildlife, are nothing more than kindling for the next big fire,” Falen said. “Forest lands must be responsibly managed but that is not happening today because environmental extremists have abused regulations currently on the books to tie the hands of land management agencies. The Catastrophic Wildfire Prevention Act will restore some common sense to forest management, improve public safety, and restore the environment.”

H.R. 5744 will allow the U.S. secretary of Agriculture and the U.S. secretary of the Interior to streamline projects to reduce hazardous fuel loads, thus reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire and protecting endangered species on lands managed by USFS and BLM. Authorized projects include timber thinning and livestock grazing.

The law, in part, was drafted following Arizona’s Wallow and Rodeo-Chediski and New Mexico’s Las Conches fires that burned thousands of acres.

Joe Guild, chairman of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s Federal Lands Committee, urged Congress to consider H.R. 5744 and commended Congressman Gosar for stepping up and working to restore the ability of the federal government to work with farmers and ranchers to prevent catastrophic wildfires.

“Catastrophic wildfires cost taxpayers millions of dollars in immediate response and subsequent restoration projects. Managing the land and reducing hazardous fuel loads to prevent wildfires is the right thing to do,” Guild said. “Environmental extremists should not be allowed to continue obstructing our ability to responsibly manage the land and its resources. Congressman Gosar’s legislation is a crucial step in the right direction of stopping the abuse of well-intended environmental laws. We urge members of Congress to support this legislation and help prevent future devastating catastrophic wildfires.”

At a meeting with the Arizona Cattle Growers Association (ACGA), Gosar admitted the proposed law may be a long shot.

“This isn’t going to be easy. It’s going to take all of us, keeping our eyes on the prize,” said Gosar.

The legislation is, in part, in response to the Save Arizona’s Forest Environment (SAFE) plan initiated late last year by Arizona’s cattlemen.

The SAFE plan called for immediate restoration of Arizona’s overgrown forests, a five-year suspension of NEPA regulations, reintroduction of logging and grazing in areas closed off because of endangered species concerns, and a review of wildfire fighting methods used on public lands.

“This legislation addresses the concerns of the SAFE plan. We are being proactive and offering a solution to fix the problem. None of us wants to see another catastrophic wildfire,” said ACGA President Andy Groseta.

Upon receipt of a “public petition” for designation of an “at-risk forest” or “threatened and endangered species habitat,” the bill would require the secretary of the agency affected to make a decision within 60 days.

If the project is authorized, the public would have 30 days to respond to the decision after notice is published in the Federal Register. And within 60 days of that same notice, a final notice of the project would have to be published.

If the project included logging or grazing, an EIS would need to be prepared within 30 days. The EIS would be good for 10 years for grazing and 20 years for logging.

The final section of the proposed legislation would require an assessment of potential fuel loads before listing of any species under the Endangered Species Act.

Regional leaders lent their support to legislation as well as the notion that something has to be done to remove the potential for more large fires.

Tom Thurman, county supervisor for District 2 in Yavapai County, AZ, put the blame squarely on federal regulations.

“Environmental impact statements have gotten where they are completely out of hand. Even when we try to work on trails, it’s like pulling teeth. The forest is way too thick. This makes complete common sense,” said Thurman.

Camp Verde, AZ, Mayor Bob Burnside, whose council endorsed the SAFE plan early this year, said such legislation would be welcomed. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor