Saving our National Forests
Chairman’s Opening Statement
Subcommittee on Federal Lands, House Natural Resources Committee
When Gifford Pinchot founded the U.S. Forest Service in 1905, his vision was of an agency that welcomed the American people to their public lands and that worked cooperatively with local communities to maximize the sustainable use and enjoyment of our resources. His policy was to manage our forests “for the greatest good for the greatest number of people in the long run.”
For decades, the Forest Service did just that. The emerging science of forestry offered us principles of sound forest management with which to assure healthy, thriving and resilient forests in perpetuity.
These practices prevented vegetation and wildlife from overgrowing the ability of the land to support them. Revenues from the sale of excess timber provided a steady stream of revenues to the treasury which could, in turn, be used to further improve, protect and manage the public lands. It also contributed significantly to our nation’s prosperity.
But 45 years ago, we replaced these sound management practices with what can only be described as a policy of benign neglect. In the 1970’s, Congress opened a floodgate of ponderous and Byzantine laws, regulations and lawsuits, with the explicit promise to “save the environment” from the predations of mankind.
After 45 years of these policies, I believe we are entitled to ask, “How are our national forests doing?” The answer is damning. Our forests have not been improved by these policies, and in fact, have been tragically and catastrophically harmed by them.
Surplus timber harvested from of our national forests has dropped more than 80 percent in those years, while acreage destroyed by forest fire has increased proportionally. Wildlife habitats these laws were supposed to preserve are being systematically incinerated as forests become choked with dry tinder precisely because these same laws prevented us from thinning. We have lost vast tracts of national forests to beetle infestations and disease as weakened trees can no longer resist their attacks. As these trees die and cannot legally be removed, they provide the fuel for the ultimate round of destruction: catastrophic wildfire. Even then, we cannot salvage the fire-killed timber before it loses its value and is abandoned to insects and decay.
Ironically, our private forest lands are conspicuously healthier than the public lands precisely because they are freed from so many of the laws that are tying the hands of our public foresters. These policies may be making environmental law firms rich, but they are killing our national forests.
Last month, I toured the aftermath of the King Fire in my district that destroyed 150 square miles of Sierra forests last year.
From the air, you can vividly see the property line separating the federal lands from the privately owned and managed lands of Sierra Pacific Industries. On the federal side there is complete devastation – it’s as if a giant had planted 30-foot black toothpicks one next to another as far as you can see. It is a scene of complete devastation – until you reach the SPI property line. The moment the fire hit that line, it began to break up into smaller patches that could finally be extinguished.
A year after the fire, those fire-killed patches on the SPI lands had been completely salvaged and crews were beginning to plant new trees before brush can claim the ground. Meanwhile, the federal lands sit abandoned and forsaken.
Just a few short years from now, the private lands will once again be green, growing, thriving young forests, while the public lands will be scrub brush, dead trees and bark beetles while we wait a hundred years or more for the forest to reclaim the land.
We’re told we don’t have the money to manage our forests. That is precisely because of these policies. If the surplus timber can be carried out before it is burned out – as we did for many decades – we can generate more than enough funds not only to clean out and protect our forests, but also to replant the acreage we have lost, assure a perpetual resource for future generations, restore a vibrant and prosperous economy to our forested regions, generate a bounty of tax revenues for state and local governments in these regions, and provide a positive cash flow to the U.S. Treasury.
The House has already taken the first step toward restoring sound forest management to our public lands by adopting the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015, HR 2647 by Congressman Bruce Westerman.
It seeks to provide the Forest Service with immediate reforms that require no new regulations, rules, planning or mapping. Among other things, it streamlines fire and disease prevention programs by providing categorical exclusions from NEPA for forest treatment and salvage operations. It sets a 90-day time limit on environmental studies for salvage sales, assuring that fire-killed timber can be quickly removed to create both revenues and room for new trees. It protects forest managers from frivolous lawsuits by requiring litigants to post bonds. It prevents restraining orders from running out the clock on time-sensitive projects.
It permanently fixes the fire borrowing problem by amending the Stafford Act to allow wildfire costs that exceed the budget to be paid for by the Disaster Relief Fund.
HR 2647 passed the House in July, and we now await action in the Senate.
This legislation, however, is just the first step. We must consider additional approaches and new ideas to improve the health of our federal forests and that is why we are here today.
States, localities and tribes provide healthier and less fire-prone forests than their federal counterparts. These forests are resilient, boost local economies and often provide better watershed health, wildlife habitat, and recreation opportunities.
Today we will hear expert testimony from a panel of witnesses who will be able to tell the subcommittee what works for state and tribal forest management and offer guidance for how we can improve management of our federal forests. We will also hear about the devastating economic impacts of what happens when our federal lands are mismanaged.
The American people want our forests returned to health, regardless of who manages the land. We want the continually rising threat of wildfire brought back under control. That will require a dramatic change in current policy. We began that process with the passage of HR 2647, and we will continue to look for solutions to this forest health epidemic.