This year, our communities have been victims of the largest forest fires in recorded history. The Wallow Fire on the Apache-Sitgreaves Forests grew to over half a million acres, charring in its wake some of the most treasured parts of ponderosa pine country. In total, over a million acres of Forest Service lands, as well as another 600,000 acres of federal, state and private lands have burned across the American Southwest.
The frequency of fires, and the magnitude of the acreage burned, has exponentially increased since 1990. It is time for us to be honest about the problem as well as the solution. We must re-evaluate our forest management policies at all levels of government because the status quo is detrimental to our safety, Arizona’s ecological health, and the local and national economy.
The current federal system continues to give funding priority to suppression. Although the need to suppress fires is never going to go away, it is clear we must shift priority towards pro-active forest restoration management. It is estimated that long-term restoration and rehabilitation generally amount to 2 to 30 times the reported suppression costs.
There is roughly 80 million acres of forests across the West that are overgrown and ripe for
catastrophic wildfire, according to the Landfire multiagency database. We simply cannot afford to use taxpayer dollars for 100 percent of the large-scale restoration work necessary to prevent unnatural fires like Wallow, Rodeo-Chediski or Schultz. Empowering private industry is going to be the key to the future of forest management.
The Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4-FRI) is a proposal that will restore 2.5 million acres of ponderosa pine forests on the Apache-Sitgreaves, Coconino, Kaibab and Tonto National Forests and revitalizes the Arizona logging industry. Instead of relying on the Forest Service to pay all of the costs for restoration thinning, 4-FRI recognizes the fiscal reality and puts forth a proposal that calls for the Forest Service to partner with private industry to restore proper forest health.
This first of its kind, large-scale treatment will reduce damaging wildfire impacts, as well as provide forest jobs, markets for wood products, and ecological restoration. It has garnered my support, as well as colleagues in the Arizona Congressional Delegation, Governor Brewer, leaders in the state Legislature, the affected counties and cities, and an unprecedented range of environmental groups and industry partners.
When the federal government partners with local government, stakeholder groups, and private industry, together we can create much-needed jobs and a safer environment for our citizens. Landscape-scale, fiscally responsible forest restoration treatments are the only way our state and the country is going to make real progress towards proper forest health.
I am also looking at a wide-variety of legislative initiatives that will improve federal law affecting natural resources management. I am reviewing environmental laws in need of reform to make the process more streamlined, efficient and fair. Compliance has become muddled and overly bureaucratic, leading to project-killing delays. The goal is not to dismantle important environmental protections, but to ensure they are working with us not against us.
I am also looking at reforming the Equal Access to Justice Act, a law that is frequently misused to obstruct important conservation and economic development initiatives. While some lawsuits are important to ensuring our environmental laws are upheld, some groups sue federal agencies excessively, tie up the process for years, and then submit a bill to the taxpayers via EAJA.
I am a cosponsor of H.R. 1996 the Government Litigation Savings Act, which will put a halt to these abuses by reinstating tracking and reporting requirements and instituting reforms that will reduce the taxpayer’s burden to pay for the attorney’s fees. These reforms will return the law to its original intent — to help individuals and small businesses during a once-in-a-lifetime need to battle the federal government in court.
Our forest and natural resources are a way of life in Arizona. I remain saddened by what has happened to my constituents that have been adversely affected by this fire. I think if we look forward and work collaboratively in stewardship, we can address the desperate forest maintenance crisis and other natural resources-related issues facing our state.