Bill attempts to cut fuels for wildfires

Sep 30, 2013

— Wildfires in the west have burned more intensely in recent decades

It’s a dark joke in some western states that “fire” is a season. But that wasn’t always the case.

In the past, there were more wildfires, but they were smaller and consumed fewer acres. Now, because of increased fuel loads, a fewer number of fires burn farther and more aggressively, consuming millions of acres of public land and devastating communities. A bill which recently passed the House aims to curb the underlying cause.

H.R. 1526—Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act—passed the House with a 244 to 173 vote. Among other things, the bill aims to prevent catastrophic wildfires by streamlining the process of fuel load removal. It provides for the use of livestock grazing and timber removal in at-risk areas.

According to the bill’s Title II: “A hazardous fuel reduction project or a forest health project may include livestock grazing and timber harvest projects carried out for the purposes of hazardous fuels reduction, forest health, forest restoration, watershed restoration, or threatened and endangered species habitat protection or improvement, if the management action is consistent with achieving long-term ecological restoration of the forest type in the location where such project will occur.”

Though the bill is being heralded in many circles as ‘bipartisan,’ the vote breakdown suggests political ideology played a big role in the vote. Of the 244 yea votes, 227 were Republicans and 17 were Democrats. All but one of the 173 nay votes were Democrats; Rep. Chris Gibson (R-NY) was the lone dissenting Republican. Fifteen representatives did not vote.

The bill was introduced in April by Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA) and was cosponsored by 22 other Republican House members. According to information provided by the House committee on Natural Resources, H.R. 1526 would create 68,000 direct jobs and 140,000 indirect jobs.

Public lands and grazing groups welcomed the vote.

“This wildfire package could save the livelihoods of thousands of ranchers on and near public lands,” said Brice Lee, Colorado rancher and president of the Public Lands Council.

“Millions of acres across the West burn each year, leaving many communities devastated and a whole lot of livestock with nowhere to go. I applaud Chairman Hastings and the other representatives, such as Paul Gosar of Arizona and Scott Tipton of Colorado, who contributed to this package by offering commonsense, concrete forest management solutions.”

While the bill outlines a process for environmental analyses to be conducted, it also includes important language regarding such analysis. Emphasis added.

“[I]f the primary purpose of a hazardous fuel reduction project or a forest health project under this title is the salvage of dead, damaged, or down timber resulting from wildfire occurring in 2013, the hazardous fuel reduction project or forest health project, and any decision of the Secretary concerned in connection with the project, shall not be subject to judicial review or to any restraining order or injunction issued by a United States court.”

As this strikes at the central tactic of many conservation groups with anti-grazing platforms, the bill has the potential to inspire significant controversy. But one of the accelerants of that controversy—the constant tide of litigation from anti-grazing and antilogging groups—also has to go, according to Scott George, President of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and Wyoming rancher.

“This bipartisan vote speaks to the simple truth of the matter: endless regulations and pseudoenvironmentalists’ litigation is creating a tinderbox. It’s bad for ranchers, communities, wildlife, watersheds, air quality— all of the above. We need a change.”

Justin Oldfield, Vice President of the California Cattlemen’s Association, said the vote was hopeful and that it had the potential to help sidestep some of the litigative “road blocks.”

“People need to look at how we manage our forests. It has to include grazing. It has to include timber harvesting.”

Despite the welcome the House vote received, it is unlikely the bill will pass the Democrat-controlled Senate considering the very partisan-weighted vote. But some still hope. Dan Bell, an Arizona rancher and president of the Arizona Cattle Growers Association, urged the Senate to take up the legislation without delay.

“Our public lands are producing fuel loads at an astronomical rate; we need action by Congress to allow immediate fuel reductions to protect rural America. We must work towards building resilient ecosystems that do not fall victim to the large catastrophic wildfires that are threatening ranchers’ way of life.”

If you are interested in contacting your senator regarding this bill, a full list of contact information—phone numbers and mailing addresses—for senatorial offices can be found at senators_cfm.cfm.

Fire history

In the past several decades the number of fires has decreased, but the scope of the damage and the intensity of wildfires has increased significantly.

For example, in 1975 there were 134,872 recorded wildfires which collectively burned 1.79 million acres, for an average burn of 13.3 acres per fire. In 2012 (most recent complete data) there were 67,774 recorded fires which collectively burned 9.33 million acres, amounting to a 137.6 acres burned per fire. See Tables 1 and 2.

Of course, the average per-fire-burn numbers only give a vague idea of the situation, averaging out the catastrophic wildfires right along with the tiny wildfires. Out of the top 10 worst wildfires on record—when taking into account loss of life, property and acres burned— half of them took place in the past 25 years.

Of the other five, four occurred in the early- to mid-1800s and the other in 1910. And this does not account for fires of 2013 and ongoing or recent big fires such as California’s Rim Fire, which may yet break records once all data is collected.

It has often been said by those in the ranching community that wildfires weren’t as bad when livestock was allowed to graze more widely on public lands and forests and timber harvest was allowed.

According to data provided by BLM and other agencies, grazing on public lands is half of what it was almost 60 years ago. In 1954, there were 18.2 million authorized animal unit months (AUMs) for grazing on public land. In 2012, there were 8.9 authorized AUMs. BLM notes that there are more authorized AUMs than actual forage use, and that AUMs are not clear signs of how many head of livestock are out at any given time.

In addition to this decline in grazing on public land, the amount of timber harvest conducted in national forests has declined 80 percent in the last 30 years.

While it is possible this is a post hoc ergo proper hoc fallacy—assuming because one event came after another it was caused by the preceding event— the every-day experiences of those on the land are hard to ignore. The relationship between diminished grazing, reduced removal of downed timber, higher fuel loads, and more intense fires is also hard to ignore. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor