The five largest wildfires in the state have all occurred since 2002, including last summer’s Wallow Fire in the White Mountains.
Rep. Paul Gosar has introduced a bill that would streamline forest thinning projects in areas facing a high risk of wildfires, which would include much of central Arizona.
House Resolution 5744 would push the Forest Service and other federal land managers to permit the use of logging and cattle grazing to reduce fuel loads in any at-risk forest. It would also require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies to consider fire danger in recovery plans for endangered species — and to consider the impact of any new listings on wildfire risks.
Rep. Gosar said,“ What is standing in the way of proactive and fiscally sustainable forest management? Bureaucratic red tape is preventing us from participating in the stewardship of our public lands and the extortion tactics of some environmental groups, which have devastated the timber industry and placed local ranchers’ economic livelihood at risk.”
The bill represents an attempt to free forest-thinning projects from delays caused by environmental reviews and laws concerning things like safeguarding endangered species.
However, conservationist groups maintain that the Forest Service’s disregard of environmental laws has repeatedly resulted in rulings against the Forest Service by federal judges and that inept management of logging and grazing created the very conditions Gosar now bemoans. Moreover, they offer as an alternative model the Four Forests Restoration Initiative, based on a consensus among loggers, environmentalists and local officials.
Only about 4 percent of bills introduced in committee ever become law, according to bill tracking services, which put the odds of passage of his bill at about 2 percent since he has only a handful of co-sponsors.
Gosar cited the dramatic rise in major fires in the West when he introduced the bill.
He noted that some 80 million acres of forests in the West are now vulnerable to wildfires, with increases in tree densities of 10 to 25 a century ago to hundreds of trees per acre now.
He noted that Arizona’s First Congressional District alone contains 37 million acres of federal land, including 9 million acres administered by the U.S. Forest Service. Gosar currently represents Congressional District 1, which included all of Gila County before the recent redistricting. Now he’s in a tough Republican primary fight with Lake Havasu City state house representative Ron Gould in the newly redrawn Congressional District 4. Gosar moved from Flagstaff to Prescott to run in District 4, which now includes northern Gila County, as well as much of western Arizona.
Gosar noted that the size and intensity of wildfires has increased dramatically in recent years, thanks to an overcrowded forest and a decade of drought.
The five largest wildfires in Arizona history have all occurred since 2002, including last summer’s 840-square-mile Wallow Fire in the White Mountains.
Throughout the West so far this year, 900 fires have burned 6,000 square miles, including 50,000 acres in Arizona.
The Forest Service now spends about $1.5 billion annually fighting fires although estimates by the Western Forestry Leadership Coalition suggest it costs between 2 and 30 times as much to fight a fire as it does to prevent a fire with thinning and controlled burns. Still, the Forest Service spends about four times as much fighting fires as it spends on thinning and restoration projects.
The bill drew support from ranchers and loggers.
Gila County rancher David Cook, who serves on the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association’s executive committee, said, “For far too long we have allowed outside interests and bureaucratic paralysis to dictate the management of our nation’s forests. Our federal government needs to reduce the current bureaucratic planning process and litigious planning field that our forests have been subject to for most of the last 30 to 40 years. Congressman Gosar’s bill will expedite projects, encouraging free enterprise solutions on federal lands to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire.”
Apache County Natural Resource Coordinator John Shamley said, “The current system is heavily laden with out-of-date and conflicting mandates upon the land management agencies, slowing down an already cumbersome system even more.”