Clear direction on forest and range management needed

Aug 5, 2013

Legislation that would improve forest health and assist rural economies made it one step farther last week, passing in the U.S. House of Representative Natural Resources Committees.

Public Lands Council (PLC) and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) hailed the passage of the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act, H.R. 1526, legislation to prevent the continuation of catastrophic wildfire events by improving federal forest management.

The bill, passed on a voice vote, was offered by Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-WA, and includes prescriptive measures offered by various western congressional members whose districts are threatened by catastrophic wildfire and forest mismanagement.

According to PLC and NCBA, the wildfire and forest management package’s resounding passage through committee signals legislators’ recognition that current practices of federal forest and range management, combined with extreme drought, are creating dangerous and economically and environmentally damaging conditions across the west. PLC and NCBA specifically applauded the package’s inclusion of Rep. Paul Gosar’s, R-AZ, Catastrophic Wildfire Prevention Act, which was introduced as a stand-alone bill earlier in 2013. Gosar’s legislation would put hard deadlines on analyses performed under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in those areas with excessive fuel loads, expediting livestock grazing and timber thinning for the purposes of hazardous fuels reduction while increasing forest and economic health.

“Decades of mismanagement have turned our U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management lands into a tinderbox,” said PLC President and Hesperus, CO, rancher Brice Lee.

“Over the years, ranchers who count on the grass resources for their livelihoods have been told they must scale back grazing. Not only has this been economically damaging for their families and their communities, it has also contributed to a massive overload of fuel. H.R. 1526 sets this upside-down situation straight.”

According to Lee, the bill also includes measures from other congressional representatives that PLC and NCBA support. Rep. Scott Tipton’s, R-CO, Healthy Forest Management and Wildfire Prevention Act was also included in the package. Tipton’s bill takes further steps to reduce impediments to fuel-reduction projects brought by NEPA analysis.

“Our package would allow greater state and local involvement in wildfire prevention on federal lands in order to expedite hazardous fuels reduction projects and reduce litigation, and in doing so help restore sustainable timber harvesting, create jobs, and provide a reliable source of revenue for rural education. Time is of the essence and we cannot afford to wait for more fires and more devastation before Congress acts. I urge quick action in the House to pass this needed package,” Tipton said.
NCBA President Scott George, a Cody, WY, rancher, stated that unless Congress gives this administration clear direction on forest and range management, the entire nation stands to lose important wildlife habitat, watersheds and production of food and fiber.

“It’s not just those of us in the west who will suffer if we don’t put federal land management back on course. Forty percent of the western cattle herd and over half the nation’s sheep spend some time on federal lands,” he said. “If the resources continue to go up in smoke, so does a huge portion of American livestock production. This hurts consumers everywhere.”
Both Lee and George urged the House to pass H.R. 1526.

“We can’t afford to see another year like last year, where livestock were killed by wildfire, thousands of head had to be shipped to temporary pastures, and hay was in short supply,” said Lee. “But again, we’re facing very similar dry conditions this year. Swift passage of H.R. 1526 is of the essence.”

Wildfires burned 9.3 million acres in 2012, while USFS only harvested approximately 200,000 acres of timber. The cost of proactive healthy forest management is far less than the cost of wildfire suppression and cleaning up the aftermath. According to USFS, the agency spent $296 million on hazardous fuels treatment nationwide in FY2012 while spending $1.77 billion on wildfire suppression during the same time.

“Since 1960, when we began keeping good records, surpassing 9 million acres burned has only happened three times: [2012], 2006 and 2007,” Randy Eardley, spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, told USA Today.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, as of Aug. 1, 2013, the U.S. has had 28,016 fires burning 2,336,185 acres, with several currently burning, including two in Alaska, two in California, five in Idaho, five in Montana, five in Oregon and three in Washington.

Earlier this month, Colorado Deputy State Forester Joe Duda testified during a Natural Resources Committee hearing on wildfire prevention. He joined with Tipton in speaking on the need for more proactive management to restore forests to healthy conditions and reduce the severity of wildfire.

“Poor forest condition is one of the primary factors that have led to destructive wildfires and catastrophic insect and disease outbreaks. The response has been to deal with the impacts (i.e. unwanted wildland fire), rather than improve the health of our forests through thinning and other management activities. For example, this year, we will remove less than one-half of the biomass in the form of forest products than we did in 1990,” said Duda in his testimony. “Without adequate resources and an efficient process for thinning our forests to achieve age class and species diversity, the U.S. Forest Service, and Coloradans, will continue to lose ground in our collective attempts to address the mountain of dead timber and declining forest health. In simple terms, we are managing the disturbance, rather than addressing the entire system, which is the only real solution to our current situation.” — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor