Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Prescott) has once again introduced a bill designed to “streamline” environmental and administrative reviews when it comes to reviewing grazing leases and thinning projects to reduce wildfire risk.
Gosar, who represents northern Gila County, said the bill would reduce administrative delays for grazing and thinning permits that would reduce fuel loads. An identical bill died last year, but this year he has enlisted as a co-sponsor newly re-elected Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Flagstaff), who represents southern Gila County.
Gosar said, “By cutting bureaucratic red tape and streamlining the review process, this bill ensures that projects can move forward quickly when the public is at risk. As we
anticipate another dangerous fire season, with minor fires in Northern Arizona and Colorado already taking place, Congress must act now.”
The bill enlisted the strong support of the Arizona Cattle Ranchers Association and a total of 30 other groups.
“Last year, more than 9 million acres were burned in one of the worst fire seasons this country has seen in the last few decades,” said National Cattleman’s Beef Association President Scott George. “We hope that Congress acts swiftly and moves forward with passing this legislation, so that ranchers and entire communities do not remain vulnerable during what may be another devastating fire season.”
However, environmental groups expressed
skepticism, especially when it comes to waiving reviews of grazing permits. Researchers from Northern Arizona University have concluded that the overgrazing that eliminated the grass that once carried frequent, low-intensity ground fires in the forest played a big role in the proliferation of small trees and brush that have made millions of acres in Northern Arizona a virtual tinderbox — with tree densities 100 times greater than in pre-settlement forests.
Todd Schulke, an analyst for the Center for Biological Diversity and one of the key participants in the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, said, “This bill doesn’t pass the laugh test in terms of scientific credibility. Grazing to reduce fire risk is exactly the opposite of what the science says — grazing is part of the problem, not the solution. The bill also essentially eliminates meaningful environmental review by demanding such short timelines that it will waste forest managers time and likely increase controversy. This is an example of the raft of wacko bills being thrown around in Congress that are more about congressional grandstanding than about actually getting anything done — they know this bill will never see the light of day but are desperate to appear as if they are doing something.”
Gov.track.us gave the bill a 51 percent chance of getting out of the House Natural Resources Committee on which Gosar serves, but only a 3 percent chance of actually making it into law, based on the history of similar bills in previous sessions.
Gosar in a prepared statement said, “This bill would put people back to work in our national forests, restore the environment and improve public safety. It allows our government to partner with private industry, like what has been done with the White Mountain Stewardship and the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI). By cutting bureaucratic red tape and streamlining the review process, this bill ensures that projects can move forward quickly when the public is at risk.”
The White Mountain Stewardship project was intended to thin some 15,000 acres annually by providing a guaranteed supply of small-diameter trees to private industry and contractors in the White Mountains. The project required the Forest Service to pay about $800 per acre for the thinning projects and financial constraints prevented the Forest Service from offering more than 5,000 acres annually. The project has struggled, since the contractors can’t make money milling the small trees and brush coming off just 5,000 acres annually.
The 4FRI project, by contrast, includes no government subsidy per acre of forest thinned, but envisions contracts to thin more than 50,000 acres annually. The Forest Service nearly a year ago picked Pioneer Forest Products for that project, but so far Pioneer hasn’t lined up the financing to build a small-wood products mill and biodiesel plant in Winslow the contract requires.
Schulke helped develop the model for the 4FRI approach, which represented a rare coalition of environmentalists, loggers and local officials. The group agreed to leave most of the remaining trees larger than 16 inches in diameter alone and focus the thinning projects on the smaller trees. That agreement held the promise of ending decades of deadlock on plans to thin the forest and revive the almost vanished logging industry in Arizona.
Schulke said pro-logging congressmen like Gosar should concentrate on the 4FRI project, rather than trying to simply waive or short-cut environmental laws.
“He’d be better off pushing the Forest Service to actually work more effectively to put out restoration projects that actually address the ongoing issues that the environmental community and many local communities have in common. Unfortunately, Gosar’s ranting about more logging and grazing will just make things worse.”
Schulke said that including grazing leases in the effort to streamline approvals by waiving environmental requirements belies the concern with reducing the risk of wildfires. Historical accounts indicate that before ranchers arrived, most of Northern Arizona’s ponderosa pine forests were dominated by widely spaced, old-growth trees, with grass belly-high to a horse in much of the space between the trees. Grazing at the beginning of the 20th Century largely removed the grass, eliminating the frequent, seasonal fires that kept the understory clear.
NAU researcher Wally Covington, among others, has concluded that overgrazing played the leading role in the dramatic rise in tree densities. However, he also noted that environmental lawsuits often filed to protect the remaining big trees and endangered species like spotted owls and goshawks played a role in shutting down most Arizona logging operations in the past 30 years.
However, representatives of the cattle industry said bills like H.R. 1345 will protect rural communities. “The red tape beleaguering USFS and BLM (Bureau of Land Management) when addressing wildfires is endangering the lives and operations of livestock producers, threatening the natural resources the public depends on and hindering economic growth. This bill seeks to put the end to these issues and allow better management of public lands,” said George.