Lawmakers spar over role of ESA lawsuits in fueling wildfires
Written byPHIL TAYLOR, E&E Daily
Environmental groups over the past three years have appealed less than 5 percent of projects on federal lands designed to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire, and, of those, less than one out of five involved endangered species issues, according to a new report from Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee.
But committee Republicans and a panel of witnesses yesterday said species litigation has too often blocked or delayed forest management projects, causing a buildup of hazardous fuels that threaten the environment, nearby homes and public safety.
For the second time in less than a week, the Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on how to respond to wildfires that have ripped across 4 million acres this year, torching hundreds of homes.
And for a second time, there were few agreements on solutions.
According to a cattle rancher and wildfire experts who testified, endangered species challenges have significantly hampered efforts to restore tens of millions of acres of federal forests at high risk for wildfires.
A conservationist, meanwhile, said land managers must focus fuel-reduction projects in the wildland-urban interface and that homeowners should fire-proof their homes and yards to reduce the risk of fires.
Most agree, however, that Congress should extend stewardship contracting authority, which helps agencies fund fuel reduction projects, as well as good neighbor authority that allows states to assist with the work.
"Suits have stopped most human or economic activity connected with forests, including eliminating thousands of jobs," said committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.). "They have also obstructed projects to improve species habitat on thousands of acres decimated by fires by removing dead or diseased trees, maintaining access roads to fire areas, and removing ash and sediment."
But Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the committee's ranking member, said the Republican accusations obscure the real cause of increasingly severe wildfire: climate change.
"Environmental laws, land management agencies, litigation, endangered species and even immigrants share the Republican blame for this year's devastating wildfires," Markey said. "These accusations are just a smokescreen."
Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management data obtained by committee Democrats seemed to back up his claim.
Out of 8,000 fuel reduction projects in federal forests over the last three, less than 1 percent of all of the work was affected by appeals, according to the Democrats' report. Endangered Species Act challenges affected less than 0.05 percent of all hazardous fuels work on roughly 10 million acres of land, the report found.
"This report shows that political fact-checkers should create a new category called 'pants on wildfire' for the ill-informed Republican myths on forest fire prevention," Markey said. "When climate change is baking the country in drought and actually increasing the risks of catastrophic wildfires, these half-baked ideas from Republicans do a disservice to the people who have suffered from wildfires."
The Forest Service did not respond to emails seeking comment on the report.
Democrats said the findings are consistent with a Government Accountability Office report in 2010 that found less than 20 percent of the 1,191 fuel reduction projects on about 9 million acres from 2006 to 2008 were appealed. About 2 percent of all fuel reduction projects were litigated and those involved about 124,000 acres, the report says.
But Crystal Feldman, a committee spokeswoman, said the Democrats' report only discusses the percentage of projects that are actually stopped while failing to discuss the projects that are delayed for years and those that are canceled amid the threat of litigation.
"It's also important to note that all four witnesses at the hearing today acknowledged that endless appeals and litigation draw resources away from on-the-ground management, effectively fueling wildfire conditions, and that reform is needed," she said yesterday in an email.
As an example, Feldman said an environmental group in 2007 had delayed a fuels reduction project in Arizona, resulting in a wildfire that consumed more than 15,000 acres. The state's Rodeo-Chediski fire, she said, burned nearly half a million acres and cost $45 million to suppress due to legal challenges from environmental groups that delayed a thinning project on Forest Service lands for years, she said.
"I think it's the fear of lawsuits that has probably had a bigger impact than the lawsuits themselves," said Bill Crapser, chairman of the Council of Western State Foresters, who testified at the hearing.
The hearing yesterday follows a pair of megablazes that burned more than 100,000 acres in Colorado and claimed several hundred homes. In a drought-stricken West, experts fear such events will become more the norm.
The committee Friday considered three bills to accelerate fuel reduction projects, but two of them were opposed by Obama administration officials who said they set unrealistic timelines, reduce public input and give states too much control of federal lands (E&ENews PM, July 20).