The deadly increase in Western wildfires and the federal government’s failure to develop a coherent response last week triggered an emotionally charged congressional subcommittee meeting that veered between pleas for a consensus solution and partisan blame-placing.
Almost every witness before the Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation agreed on the urgent need for a comprehensive policy that relies on thinning and forest restoration instead of the dangerous, costly firefighting efforts like the one that claimed the lives of 19 members of a Prescott Hotshot crew near Yarnell.
However, committee members frequently veered into blaming “bureaucrats” and environmentalists for the problem, despite repeated studies showing that lawsuits aimed at timber sales simply capped a tangle a century in the making.
Still, the hearing revealed a broad agreement on the urgent need for a dramatic change in policy, like that envisioned by the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI). The hearing also revealed the enormous scope of the problem, with deadly, record-breaking fire in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado in the past two years.
“We mourn the heartbreaking loss of 19 firefighters,” said Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Flagstaff), whose district includes Southern
Gila County. “They were bravely battling the Yarnell fire when they died. Arizona has a long history of devastating wildfires and it’s important that we learn from them.”
She chronicled the succession of major fires in her district in the past three years including the 840-square-mile Wallow Fire that started from an abandoned campfire and cost $109 million to fight, the 2010 Schultz Pass Fire that burned 15,000 acres and had a $130 million financial impact and the 468,000-acre Rodeo-Chediski Fire that forced the evacuation of 30,000 people.
She urged the committee to support the 4FRI approach. “We’ve brought together the timber industry, conservationists and local communities. We’ve worked out a plan to help our forests at minimal cost to the taxpayer. Let’s do all we can to ensure our forests are healthy and protect our communities and first responders.”
Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Prescott), whose district includes Northern Gila County, said, “Over time my constituents have been recurring victims of repeated wildfires ... We must shift to a proactive management of our public lands. If we don’t, we’re going to go bankrupt.”
He said thinning and restoration treatments cost a fraction of the damage caused by a stand-replacing crown fire in forests rendered unhealthy by dramatic increases in tree densities. “Let us give the land management agencies the tools they need. We can and must do this together. We must build some type of consensus. Let’s figure out what we can all support and get it done. No isn’t an answer — particularly from the environmental community. There will be consequences.”
However, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Tucson) urged the subcommittee to postpone the hearing until emotions aroused by the deaths of the Prescott firefighters had cooled. “I think we’re still going to deal with the politicized and polarized issues that I had hoped we would allow the tragedy to settle in. Forest management is a volatile issue even without this loss of life. We have failed miserably to address this issue and provide the agencies with the tools they need to address this critical issue. We can’t starve federal agencies of the resources they need and expect them to function. Projects are backlogged, resources are not there, cooperative agreements are done — and not executed. And we cannot ignore the role of climate change — which has added two months to the fire season. Despite universal agreement that wildfire prevention should be a top priority, we have yet to move legislation. In 4FRI we have found a collaborative way to move forward — this is the approach we need to pursue, not a blanket waiver of environmental regulations,” he concluded, in reference to a forest restoration bill introduced by Gosar.
Forest Fire Facts
• In 2012, wildfires burned 9.3 million acres but the U.S. Forest Service conducted salvage logging operations on 200,000 acres.
• Between 65-82 million acres of Forest Serve lands are at “high risk of wildfires.”
• The cost of putting out wildfires now consumes more than half of the Forest Service budget, up from 13 percent in 1991.
• The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the logging, wood, paper and cabinetry industries have lost 242,000 jobs, or roughly 23 percent if its workforce, since 2006.
• A medium-sized fire can release 200,000 tons of CO2, and if the burned trees are left to decompose, several times that amount will be emitted.
Source: Congressional subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation
The 4FRI approach to removing millions of trees smaller than 16 inches in diameter in Northern Arizona’s ponderosa pine forests represents a consensus approach, with the support of local officials, environmentalists and loggers. However, that approach has been in limbo for more than a year after the Forest Service first rejected the 16-inch diameter cap on which the consensus was based and then picked a contractor without financing or a tested business plan.
Other committee members from across the West underscored the breadth of the challenge facing communities throughout the forested regions of the country.
The witnesses from the Forest Service and other agencies agreed on the urgent need to restore healthy, fire-adapted forests, but said they have struggled with budget constraints — as the soaring cost of fighting fires has bled off the money for forest restoration and thinning projects.
Deputy Forest Service Chief James Hubbard said the crisis demands a broad, collaborative approach. “It’s the federal agencies, it’s the tribes, it’s the states, it’s the local government, it’s the homeowners that have to work together on any situation we face. It’s the fuels. it’s the forest condition. It’s the development. It’s the fire-adapted communities — all of that in an ecosystem that depends on fire. It’s all about a sustainable response and restoring the landscapes. If we put all that together we have some chance of success.”
The Forest Service had to cut about 250 firefighter jobs on the brink of the current fire season as a result of the automatic sequester cuts that resulted from the budget deadlock. Moreover, legislation that allowed partnerships with local communities and states to manage forest conditions is set to expire as a result of prolonged congressional inaction, said witnesses.
Phil Rigdon, testified about the timber harvest program on the Yakima Nation Indian Reservation in Washington. He said that the Yakima Nation gets far less money per acre to manage its lands, but as a result of a timber harvest program maintains a healthier and less fire-prone forest.
Christopher Topik, with the Nature Conservancy, said the federal government must manage forests based on scientific evidence and local collaboration. “The Conservancy is very disappointed at the lack of federal support for restoration. It’s just not acceptable. A restored forest is more productive — much of North America consists of fire-driven ecosystems. We need to learn to live with fire.”
He noted that restoration efforts have been crippled by the Forest Service practice of borrowing from other programs to fund firefighting — now $2 billion annually and rising. He said the federal government should establish an emergency fund for firefighting.
But some of the congressional committee members harshly questioned the witnesses, sometimes arguing at cross-purposes with the goals of forest restoration. Efforts to restore natural conditions rely on returning fire to a sustainable role in the ecosystem by clearing away the small-tree thickets and leaving behind the big, old-growth, fire-resistant trees. In Arizona, for instance, the ponderosa pine forest has gone from densities of about 50 old-growth trees per acre to about 1,000 stunted, small trees per acre. Instead of frequent, low-intensity ground fires, these “new” types of forests produce massive, crown fires that kill virtually every tree in their path.
But Rep. Tom McClintock (R-California) said “this bizarre theory that fire is wonderful and we should let it burn — unbelievable. I seem to recall a time when we had no problem properly managing the forest because we harvested the excess timber and the money went into the treasury.”
Actually, studies suggest that the Forest Service produced the current conditions as a result of decades in which it allowed timber companies to harvest the largest trees and leave behind the saplings and slash, permitted cattle to eat most of the grass that carried the frequent, low-intensity ground fires and pursued aggressive fire suppression efforts that allowed fuel loads to build up. The area around Yarnell with a manzanita-oak habitat adapted to frequent, low intensity fires hadn’t had a major fire in about 40 years, resulting in “radical” fire behavior.
McClintock effectively turned that history on its head, saying that the solution lies in returning to the previous policies.
Previously “we removed the older growth from the forest so we had much more healthy forests and we had small timber crews spread throughout the mountains with good timber roads. Now the logging roads are disintegrating, forests are overgrown and the treasury is empty. These are the policies that have failed catastrophically. I believe it’s time for this nonsense to end.”
However, Grijalva also took some comfort from the testimony, with broad agreement between conservationists, forest managers and loggers.
“I was surprised and gladdened that there is overlap between the agencies’ testimony and the industries’ testimony.”