Democratic News

Mr. President, today I am introducing legislation to authorize a coordinated, consistent, community-based program to restore and maintain the ecological integrity of degraded National Forest System and public lands watersheds. I am pleased to be introducing this legislation with Senator Craig. He has been a true champion for rural, natural resource-dependent communities. Two years ago, residents of Los Alamos were evacuated to escape the Cerro Grande fire. Many ultimately lost their homes. While the devastation that resulted from the fire will not soon be forgotten, this event also was significant because it finally focused our attention on a problem that has been brewing for a long time – increasing fire risk due to the degraded condition of our national forests and public lands. Unfortunately, the problem continues as this year’s fires continue to threaten numerous communities. Increasing threats to people and homes as a result of forest fires is only one symptom of the current condition of our national forests and public lands. Water quality, water flows, animal and plant habitats are all adversely affected. Moreover, the health of adjacent communities is at risk when our national forests and public lands are in a degraded condition. Restoration is desperately needed. Three years ago, I introduced the Community Forest Restoration Act, a bill to establish a cooperative forest restoration program in New Mexico to begin addressing this problem in a collaborative way. Ultimately, the legislation was enacted into law. Implementation has been very successful to date. Through my work on the Community Forest Restoration Act and other similar efforts, it has become clear to me that new and creative approaches to the management of our forests is critical to ensure a meaningful future for both our federal lands and the communities that depend on these lands. A major, multi-year investment in restoration work on our national forests and Federal lands is a critical component of achieving our desired result. Senator Craig and I, as well as other Members, have worked to secure increased funding for such an investment. The additional funding that Congress has approved for the last few years for hazardous fuels reduction near communities is one example of our success. However, an investment alone is not enough. An investment in our natural resources must occur in a way that benefits the rural communities located within and adjacent to our national forests and public lands. I grew up in Silver City, New Mexico, a forested community adjacent to the Gila National Forest. I learned firsthand that if the forest is in good shape, the community is in good shape. The Federal land managers need to respect local and traditional knowledge by including it in project planning. Community forestry represents a way to integrate local knowledge and science in order to make the best decisions about how to take care of the land. Communities are coming together to restore the ecological integrity and resiliency of our public lands. In New Mexico, groups such as Las Humanas Cooperative, the Truchas Land Grant, the Catron County Citizens Group, and the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps are working to restore watersheds and build a high-skill, high-wage workforce in rural communities. In the Pacific Northwest, groups such as Sustainable Northwest, Wallowa Resources, and Partners for a Sustainable Methow are seeking ways to increase the stewardship role of local communities in the maintenance and restoration of ecosystem integrity and biodiversity. In California, the Watershed Research & Training Center is striving tirelessly to include communities in the Forest Service’s planning, restoration projects, and follow up monitoring of restoration. At the national level, American Forests and the National Network for Forest Practitioners are important partners that are seeking changes in policy to ensure that community benefits are an integral component of national forests and public land management. The legislation that Senator Craig and I are introducing today is meant to help facilitate these types of approaches nationwide. Communities cannot create collaboratively restore our national forests and public lands alone. The Federal government is an important partner in this effort and this legislation will provide much needed new authority and programs to assist communities. A few years ago, representatives from the Forest Service’s Forest Product Laboratory visited my State to make recommendations on how to find new markets for products created from small trees that need to be removed to reduce fire threat. They noted that a lack of entrepreneurs and micro-businesses was a barrier to increasing the number of natural resource-based economic opportunities in rural communities. New Mexico needs these stimuli in the private sector, as do communities across the West, and this legislation will help create rural economies that depend on maintaining the ecological resiliency of the National Forest System and public lands. Finally, I want to emphasize that, because what we are talking about is new and in many ways untested, we all will need to closely monitor implementation. Everyone now agrees that past policies, such as systematically suppressing all wildfires, were misguided and contributed to the problems we face today. But how do we avoid repeating similar mistakes? Meaningful and open monitoring processes using ecological and social indicators will help to ensure that the right policies are in place for both the land and the communities. I would like to thank all of the individuals and groups who provided data, input, and comments on earlier drafts of this bill. Senator Craig and I sought to ensure that this bill was a comprehensive approach to the issue and we received a lot of assistance from many communities across the country in this endeavor. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the text of the bill, as well as letters of support we have received for the bill, be printed in the Record immediately following my remarks.