Hearing on Wildfire Prevention
House Federal Lands Sub-Committee
April 23, 2015
The Sub-committee on Federal Lands meets today to examine the government’s management of our forests and the effect its policies have had on both the health of our forests and the safety of our communities.
Let me cut right to the chase. We have seen an 80 percent reduction in timber harvested from our national forests, and in the same period a concomitant increase in acreage destroyed by fire. This phenomenon far predates the Western drought and was best summed up by a forester long ago who observed, “All that excess timber comes out of the forests one way or the other. It is either CARRIED OUT or it is BURNED OUT. But it comes OUT.”
When we carried it out, we had healthy forests and a thriving economy. Timber sales not only thinned overgrown forests, giving trees room to grow – it provided millions of dollars to the federal government with which to manage the public lands and it generated economic activity throughout forest regions from which mountain communities prospered. Often timber contracts included provisions to assure that the removal of commercially viable forest products also paid for the removal of ladder fuels that ignite destructive crown fires.
Well maintained timber roads provided access to all parts of our forests, giving the public full access to the public lands and giving firefighters an immediate way to reach the heart of a fire at its earliest stages. And when a fire had killed timber, we quickly removed it while it still had value, using the revenues to reforest the land before it was claimed by brush.
About thirty years ago, a radical and retrograde ideology began to slowly replace modern forestry science with a policy that can best be described as benign neglect. In the name of protecting endangered species, we placed increasing tracts of land off limits to forest management, allowing our forests to become dangerously overcrowded and overgrown. We abandoned the timber roads desperately needed by firefighters until they became impassable. We devastated the economies of mountain communities, requiring increasingly expensive federal financial aid, such as the Secure Rural Schools program, to make up for revenues lost to these communities. The forests are now densely overgrown, and dying trees now fight for their lives in desperate competition for crowded ground.
Ironically, the endangered species in whose name we have imposed these misguided policies are even bigger losers than the human population. This sub-committee has already noted the abysmal record of species recovery under the Endangered Species Act. One reason is forest fires that have resulted from these policies have incinerated hundreds of square miles of endangered species habitat. For example, the Rim Fire alone incinerated 46 protected spotted owl habitats and the King Fire another 32.
Forest managers today complain that they only have a fraction of the money needed to remove ladder fuels. Only three percent of the highest risk acreage is currently scheduled for thinning. Thirty years ago, this wasn’t a problem, because timber companies paid us to thin national forest lands. They did so because they were allowed to remove a portion of the commercially viable trees. Today, the commercially viable trees are largely off limits, requiring us to pay others to treat forest acreage. And there’s not enough money to make a dent in this need.
The full impact of these neglectful policies can be seen in the contrast between privately managed forest lands and public. After the Rim Fire, private landowners salvaged fire-killed trees and used a portion of the proceeds to replant the forest. On the federal lands, the scorched trees still rot in place while six feet of dry brush accumulates around them. It will likely be an entire century before a forest naturally occupies this land again.
Time and again, we see vivid boundaries between the young, healthy, growing forests managed without these restrictions, and the choked, dying or burned public forests managed with these restrictions.
Enough is enough.
Today we will hear expert testimony pointing the way back to the future.
We know what works and we know what doesn’t. The American people want our forests returned to health. We want the growing scourge of wildfire brought back under control. We want the destruction of mountain habitats by fire, disease and pestilence arrested and reversed. We want the prosperity of our mountain regions restored. And that will require a dramatic change in current policy, which this majority is preparing to take.