U.S. Republican Senate candidate Jeff Flake last week organized a meeting in Show Low to push for a waiver of environmental laws and regulations to speed up forest thinning and restoration projects in the wake of wildfires.
Flake largely blamed lawsuits filed by “radical environmentalists” and the administration of President Barack Obama for failing to cut through “red tape” to undertake large-scale thinning and restoration projects.
He highlighted various bills he has sponsored to facilitate forest thinning and restoration efforts and to repeal environmental regulations that have limited cattle grazing and other private economic uses of federal lands.
In another position that would have a big impact on Gila County, Flake also called for legislation that would accelerate land trades near Globe to clear the way for what could become one of the world’s largest copper mines.
The campaign of his Democratic opponent, Dr. Richard Carmona, responded with the release of a long list of forest thinning and restoration bills Flake has opposed during his long tenure in Congress.
The bills highlighted by the Carmona campaign dated back to 2003, totaling hundreds of millions in various votes against assorted Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management budget proposals. The most recent vote cited involved a vote to cut $27 million from Forest Restoration and Wildland Fire Management in 2011.
Flake frequently voted against a broad range of appropriations bills, accumulating a record as an outspoken critic of congressional spending. The former head of the Goldwater Institute think tank, Flake has often espoused Libertarian positions, called for drastic reductions in federal spending and crusaded against congressional earmarks.
The Arizona Democratic Party also responded to Flake’s “issues tour” and his advocacy for accelerating federal land trades to help the massive Resolution Copper Mine with a blast aimed at Flake’s stint as a lobbyist. During that period, Flake represented mining companies including the parent company of Resolution Copper and a mining company owned in part by the Iranian government. That release blasted Flake for co-sponsoring the legislation that authorized the land swap near Superior to allow a mining operation worth an estimated $60 billion.
Then-Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick co-sponsored that land swap bill when she represented Rim Country as part of the First Congressional District. She was unseated by Rep. Paul Gosar two years ago, who has also championed the land swap. Kirkpatrick is now running to win back her seat in the redistricted District 1, while Gosar is running for re-election in the reconfigured District 4, which now includes all of Northern Gila County.
Flake’s issues tour made a strong push for emergency waivers of any environmental laws that would slow down thinning projects intended to reduce wildfire risks or to salvage timber and prevent erosion.
He noted that in the past decade, Arizona wildfires have consumed 4 million acres, thanks to a succession of the largest wildfires in the state’s history — including the 538,000-acre Wallow Fire and the 468,000 Rodeo-Chediski Fire.
He has supported the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, which would give timber companies long-term contracts to thin millions of acres, offering a steady supply of small trees for things like bio-fuel power plants, bio-diesel, plywood and things like finger-jointed furniture. The Forest Service after nearly two years of delay finally picked a contractor, but insiders have expressed doubts about whether the novice timber operators can line up the financing and make a go with an untested line of small-timber products.
Mostly, Flake called for eliminating “red tape and excessive regulation” to expedite “cattle grazing and forest thinning.”
He noted that he has “consistently taken on radical environmentalists who abuse existing law like the Endangered Species Act to stall and prevent fuel reduction projects from moving forward — something the Obama administration and Senate Democrats refuse to do.”
He also introduced HR 5791 in an effort to force the U.S. Forest Service to allow the town of Tombstone to use power equipment in a wilderness area to restore a spring-fed water pipeline disabled by mud flows washing off a burn area.
Tombstone sought to repair the water pipeline, but ended up in a standoff with the Forest Service which maintained the town was trying to add the flow of several springs to its water supply. Tombstone ended up making many of the repairs to the pipeline using contractors and volunteers with hand tools.
“The bill would ensure bureaucrats and radical environmentalists are no longer able to prevent towns like Tombstone from repairing disaster-damaged water sources in wilderness areas,” said Flake.
Researchers from the University of Arizona School of Forestry have done studies suggesting that poorly regulated cattle grazing in the course of the past century combined with efforts to snuff out almost all forest fires as quickly as possible played the leading role in the disastrous shift from a fire-adapted forest to a tinderbox generating ever larger and more destructive wildfires. Large-scale cattle grazing on public lands removed the grass that once carried periodic, low-intensity ground fires. Fire suppression efforts by the Forest Service then managed to prevent any fires in large stretches of forest for decades at a stretch. As a result, tree thickets sprouted and tons of dead wood accumulated on every acre of ground.
NAU researchers have said that lawsuits filed by environmental groups usually focused on saving the remaining big trees and old-growth forests played a role in the demise of the timber industry in the past 30 years, but didn’t play the leading role in the dramatic shift in forest densities.
Flake said the Forest Service must also move quickly to allow timber companies to salvage the still-useable dead and dying trees in the area scorched by the Wallow Fire. He co-sponsored HR 2562, to expedite timber salvage sales in that vast area.
Timber management officials in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests say they’ve already put out contracts to harvest dead trees along hundreds of miles of road in the burn area. However, they said that the supply of dead trees throughout the burn area far exceeds the market for the wood or the capacity of local mills.