House panel mulls response to Western wildfires
Written byPHIL TAYLOR, E&E Daily
House panel this Friday will consider three bills designed to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires, restore forest health and address an insect epidemic that many fear could fuel future blazes.
Wildfires this year have burned more than 3.3 million acres nationwide -- slightly above the 10-year average -- and have been particularly destructive.
The hearing of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands comes weeks after Colorado made national headlines as it battled a pair of megablazes that torched more than 100,000 acres and destroyed roughly 600 homes.
New Mexico this year experienced its largest wildfire on record, and as of Friday, southwest Oregon's Long Draw fire had torched 500,000 acres, becoming the largest in the nation as it exhibited "extreme wildfire behavior."
"Wildfire has taken a devastating toll on communities, the environment, wildlife habitats, and water supplies in Colorado and across the western United States," said Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.), whose H.R. 6089 is among the bills on Friday's docket.
The other bills are Rep. Ed Markey's (D-Mass.) H.R. 5960 and Rep. Paul Gosar's (R-Ariz.) H.R. 5744.
Each bill seeks to streamline the removal of dead, dying or excess trees and grasses that have accumulated as a result of decades of fire suppression and, as committee Republicans have argued, environmental laws that have hindered logging projects.
The proposals also target trees infected by the mountain pine beetle, a species native to the West that has spread rapidly over the past several years, thanks in part to warmer winters.
Tom Harbour, the Forest Service's national director of fire and aviation management, said the agency has up to 70 million acres of forests at high risk of catastrophic fire.
Tipton's bill, which carries seven Republican co-sponsors, would allow governors to designate high-risk areas and develop emergency hazardous fuels reduction projects on federal lands within their state. It would also allow treatment projects to move forward under a streamlined review process established under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 (HFRA).
"This legislation treats the bark beetle epidemic, drought and other conditions that have made our forests highly susceptible to wildfire as the emergency that it is," Tipton said.
But Niel Lawrence, the Olympia, Wash.-based forestry project director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the bill may not improve wildfire prevention efforts and appears designed to "circumnavigate some bedrock laws protecting these forests."
Markey's bill also would amend HFRA, extending the bill's authority beyond the wildland-urban interface to include beetle-killed trees. It would also permanently extend a popular stewardship contracting authority set to expire in 2013 that allows the Forest Service to use timber sale revenues to fund forest restoration projects.
Committee Democrats urged Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) to hold a hearing on the bill late last month (E&E Daily, June 28).
The bill, which has garnered support from some environmentalists, would also expand good-neighbor authority, which allows states to conduct forestry work on federal lands, from Colorado to all Western states.
"The Markey bill makes some rational concessions to protect public safety in an era of increasing fire risk," said Anne Merwin, director of policy and government affairs for the Wilderness Society. But she criticized the Tipton and Gosar bills as an overreach.
Gosar's bill, which was introduced in May and carries 31 co-sponsors, including two Democrats, would allow federal land managers to use emergency provisions of existing regulations to speed grazing and forest-thinning projects on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands, according to his office.
"The southwestern United States is again experiencing drought conditions, leaving our constituents vulnerable to yet another devastating fire season," Gosar said in the spring, noting that nearly 1 million acres of Arizona forests burned last year, harming air and wildlife and its habitat. "This legislation will expedite the review and approval process for thinning and grazing projects near at-risk communities, so that our forests can be maintained and rural jobs can be created."
The bill would set deadlines for agencies to finalize proposed projects after taking public comments. Environmental assessments for grazing projects would be valid for at least a decade and at least 20 years for timber thinning projects under the bill (E&E Daily, May 16).