Hearings and Business Meetings

SD-366 Energy Committee Hearing Room 10:00 AM

The Honorable Colleen Macleod

Commissioner, Union County, Oregon

 

 

 

 

 

testimony of

 

The Honorable Colleen MacLeod

 

Commissioner

 

Union County, Oregon

 

 

on behalf of

 

The National Association of Counties

 

 

before

 

 

The Subcommittee on Public Lands & Forests

 

of

 

The Committee on Energy & Natural Resources

 

 

United States Senate

 

 

 

 

 

July 19, 2005


Good morning Chairman Craig and Senator Wyden.  Thank you for the opportunity and the honor of testifying before you this morning.

 

My name is Colleen MacLeod. I am a County Commissioner from Union County in the Northeast corner of Oregon. I appear before you today on behalf of the National Association of Counties.

 

While every county is unique, I believe that our experiences using the tools of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA) to improve forest health and protect our communities are typical of those of many of my fellow county officials across the country.

 

Union County is located in the Wallowa Whitman National Forest, which, along with the Umatilla and Malheur National Forest comprise what is known as the Iron Triangle.

 

Our county is mountainous, heavily forested and covers over a million three hundred thousand acres. Half of that land is in federal ownership. As you might well imagine, we, as a Board of Commissioners, devote a great deal of attention, time and funds to try to restore the natural resource balance in our region; a region that has suffered economic upheavals and declining forest health over the past several decades.

 

Mr. Chairman, as you may know, Union County is fortunate to be represented here in Washington by your colleagues on this Committee, Ranking Member Ron Wyden and Senator Gordon Smith, as well as by your counterpart in the other chamber, Chairman Greg Walden – all tireless advocates for our natural resource-based communities.  Perhaps it is not entirely coincidental that we enjoy a terrific relationship with our local federal land managers. 

 

Having said that, I must let you know that as I prepared for this hearing many of my fellow county officials from across the country have wanted me to emphasize the positive working relationships and collaboration that they also enjoy with their federal partners.  For one excellent example of these partnerships, please see the attachments describing the collaboration between the New Mexico Association of Counties, the BLM and the New Mexico State Forestry Division.  Mr. Chairman, as you know, NACo has not hesitated to be sharply critical of these agencies in the past, but in this case, Chief Bosworth and Director Clarke are getting the message out to their people on the front lines, and it is making a difference.

 

We in Union County are also fortunate in that we have retained some of the infrastructure essential for large forest health improvement projects.  We still have three working mills able to process the trees that clog our forests and threaten our surrounding communities. Those mills have managed to survive, in spite of the fact they can not depend on the federal forests that surround us for their timber supply. They have managed to exist through that 180 degree turn, where the public lands that were originally designed to insure resources to our nation, have now deferred that responsibility back to a dwindling supply on private land.

 

We also have the advantage of having been early practitioners of the kind of collaboration this committee has endorsed in HFRA and other legislation in recent years.  We have, by design and through necessity, built a consistently open and collaborative working relationship with our federal, state and local partners. It has been an effort to move forward and remedy what we perceive as an imbalance. Our efforts at creating a meaningful Union County Community Wildfire Plan have been more successful and useful due to our history of teamwork. We have historically been participants in efforts such as the Blue Mountain Demonstration Project and have had, since 2001 a local Forestry Restoration Board. That board tours project sites and collaborates on outcomes for planned USFS projects. Appointees to that board represent the county, federal and state forestry, tribes, fish and wildlife, marine fisheries, ranching, small woodlands, environmental and industry. It is not a flawless process, nor does it guarantee that its projects will not be appealed. It is, however, an open process that invites discussion before litigation and demands justification for litigation after the process.

 

The collaborative effort on our CWPP has been a model. We started early and we cast our participation nets very wide. The core planning team included members from federal and state agencies, local and tribal governments as well as representation from private landowners, industry, small rural fire protection districts and emergency service providers. The resulting document from this professional collaboration and the subsequent community meetings, is an in depth analysis of wildfire risk assessment. It was designed to reduce the potential for wildfires that threaten the people, the resources, structures and infrastructures that the people in my county value.

 

Our CWPP process was a methodical, data-based approach that combined the information and expertise of the planning agency members. Sixteen Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) areas were identified and their risk level was ranked based on such factors as population, level of development, topography, vegetation and weather patterns. The responsibility for implementing projects was determined by specific landowner or managing agency. Buy-in to hazard mitigation was obtained by comprehensive participation through the project identification process.

 

Although each WUI area has within in it, multiple uses and unique concerns, what became clear was that no one project could be implemented entirely within one agency or at one level of government. Due to our process of shared resources and combined knowledge we have had the ability to combine this disparate data and prepare and refine this comprehensive plan.

 

What do we do now that the planning is done? It is good to know what needs to be done. That is powerful knowledge. However, powerful knowledge requires equally powerful action. Planning without proper implementation is a wasted process.

 

On the private side, landowners in the affected areas are stepping up and cleaning house. Residents are creating defensible space by thinning overstocked stands, planting fire resistant vegetation, improving emergency access. They have been able to access over a half million in Fire Plan dollars and some of the commercial thinning has provided funding to reduce their costs and vulnerability.

 

On the public lands side, the risk reduction efforts have been much slower. Due to the usual circumstances, restoration and fire hazard reduction on public land is a process of running through sand. If the lawsuits don’t get you, the paperwork will.

 

There is little comfort and safety assurance to a landowner who has taken the necessary steps to fire proof his property, only to find the process of treating the federal land that surrounds him is either two years out in the planning process, or held up by litigation in the courts somewhere. It does no good to fire proof one room in your home if the rest of the house is a house fire waiting to happen.

 

However the tools you have given us are providing some light at the end of the tunnel.  For instance, my colleague on the NACo Public Lands Committee, Commissioner Alan Thompson of Ravalli County, Montana, tells me that U.S. District Court recently ruled on a high-priority project from their local CWPP that had been appealed.  After considering different alternatives in collaboration with local stakeholders – and adjusting proposals in light of concerns raised in the process, the Forest Service settled on an alternative that proposed harvesting a significant number of dead and dying trees both in the WUI around the little community of Sula and on the Bitterroot National Forest. In the course of the appeal which followed, Ravalli County intervened on the side of the Forest Service.  After hearing arguments from the County and the Fire Chief of Sula, Judge Malloy ruled in favor of the Forest Service and the County.  Commissioner Thompson says that without HFRA the time spent planning the projects and the appeals and litigation which seem inevitably to follow would be too long to remove the hazardous fuels which threaten our citizens and their property, not to mention the fish and wildlife that depend on the forest.  The provisions of HFRA that streamline the appeals and litigation process are proving to be very valuable and we believe that they should be preserved and perhaps extended to other agency planning activities.

 

Similarly, in Union County, HFRA and HFI have been very helpful to us, but we still run into regulatory issues like Eastside Forest Screens and PACFISH or other Endangered Species Act issues that prevent us from doing needed treatment.  While the ESA is not under the jurisdiction of this Committee, let me pause here to make an important point.  We believe that the ESA, as it is currently implemented, is the greatest single barrier to improving forest health on the scale and at the pace that our dire forest conditions demand.  Mr. Chairman, NACo believes that the Senate should move to update and improve the ESA before the 109th Congress ends.  Failure to do so is a tragic waste of an historic opportunity.

 

As you might expect, Mr. Chairman, funding also continues to be a problem.  A number of counties report that they have completed their plans, but that priority projects are held up due to lack of funds to implement them. 

 

My colleagues in California are coming to the conclusion that this is due in part to a disconnect between Forest Service project planning and the CWPP process.  While the agencies have been wonderful partners, providing technical assistance to counties preparing CWPPs, too often these plans are considered “just” community plans, not integrated across the landscape, including federal, state and private ownerships.  Consequently, County Supervisors in California feel that they may not be realizing the full benefit of HFRA.  Part of the reason for this too may be that many CWPPs have included only projects that require grant funding, which limits the opportunity for a coordinated approach to fire risk reduction.  Since CWPPs were designed to coordinate efforts to reduce fire risk across the landscape, it may be useful to direct federal field personnel to integrate their plans with those of the communities, and to consider landscape scale projects which may generate revenue while accomplishing hazardous fuel reduction outcomes. This will improve opportunities for community members to recommend a community-wide fuel reduction strategy, provide meaningful participation in federal projects and expedite implementation of federal and private projects.

 

Another potential solution which we in Oregon have aggressively pursued uses the synergy that exists between Title II and Title III of your landmark Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act.  Many of our counties have been able to use Title III funds to support the CWPP process and then invest Title II resources to leverage project implementation. 

 

Our colleagues in California’s Regional Council of Rural Counties have made a number of other useful observations and recommendations which NACo submits as an attachment to this testimony.

 

In closing I ask that you continue to take what ever steps necessary to remedy this timeframe for restoring forest health. We need to get on with things. The forest needs our help. The citizens of this nation need our help.

 

If you have not viewed the literal cauterization that happens to an overstocked forest after a major fire, I can tell you first hand that it is no longer protection, nor habitat for man, beast or vegetation.

 

I am one of those residents who look directly out my front window every day at an overstocked, unhealthy forest; a forest that suffers from lack of treatment mainly because it had the misfortune to be designated Wilderness. This is not designated Wilderness because it has sat untouched by human activity. It has actually been accessed and used extensively for years.

 

No, I am not one of those people who seem to be drawing derision for building new McMansions out where others deem they shouldn’t. My home and the homes of my neighbors have been in place along the base of that mountain for over 100 years. The humans, the resources and the wildlife in that forest have managed to co exist in a multi-use forest framework for decades. The hand thinning we have managed to get through the restoration process will be no match for even a small fire. I have furnished you a photo I took from my driveway of a fire over the ridge a couple of years ago. Residents of my county and all across the landscape of public lands should not have to live with this kind of preventable threat.

 

Thank you for listening and for your ongoing efforts.

 

 ATTACHMENT A

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

July 14, 2006

 

 

Paul V. Beddoe, Ph.D.

Associate Legislative Director

Western Interstate Region ~ Public Lands

NACo ~ National Association of Counties

440 First Street, NW

Washington, DC 20001

 

 

 

Dear Mr. Beddoe,

 

The New Mexico Association of Counties (NMAC) entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in 2003 to establish a framework for the organizations to work collaboratively on initiatives that mutually benefit each organization’s mission and objectives.  This MOU provided a vehicle for improving the conditions under which counties and BLM can communicate and partner on resource and community issues of special concern to BLM and NMAC to include planning, fire management and restoration, economic development, recreation, tourism, cultural resources, oil and gas development, coal development, mapping and data sharing. 

 

BLM selected Joyce Fierro, Special Assistant for Intergovernmental Partnerships, as a full-time liaison for BLM to work at the NMAC office. “Many of the issues BLM deals with involve and affect local communities,” said Linda S.C. Rundell, State Director of the BLM for New Mexico. “Our vision is to bring government closer to the people, so that the needs of public land users and their communities are better incorporated into our management of New Mexico’s 13.4 million acres of public lands.”

 

A Wildfire Risk Reduction Grant Program for Rural Communities was established in 2005 as part of the MOU, under the National Fire Plan, to assist communities throughout New Mexico in reducing their risk from wildland fire.  The program was developed in response to a statewide needs assessment survey of County Managers.  When the responses from all 33 counties were compiled, a clear picture of county level concern for their at-risk communities and the lack of sufficient funding to implement their priority risk reduction activities was indicated. 

 

The grant program targets at-risk communities by offering seed money to help defray the costs of developing a Community Wildfire Protection Plan, implementing fuel reduction treatments and providing outreach and education to prevent wildland fires.  Local Governments, tribal entities and non-profit organizations are eligible to receive funding through the program. 

 

During the first grant cycle in 2005, twenty community-based risk reduction proposals were received requesting more than twice the funds available.  NMAC convened an interdisciplinary, interagency selection panel to review and rank the proposals.  Projects were funded in priority order until all available funds were expended.  The program awarded 7 grants to develop 5 Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPP) covering 28 rural communities and 2 treatments for priority projects identified in existing CWPP’s.  Recipients of this first round of grants were the Village of Cuba, Catron County, Cibola County, Socorro County, Sierra Soil and Water Conservation District, East Mountain Interagency Fire Protection Association, and the San Juan County Fire Department. 

 

The second grant cycle was released in January 2006 and twenty-one proposals were received.  Again the response was greater than the available funding.  The program awarded 10 grants, covering 79 rural communities, to develop 3 CWPPs, 5 treatments for priority projects identified in existing CWPPs and 2 educational outreach projects.  Recipients of the second round of grants were the Village of Angel Fire, Catron County, Glorieta Firewise Community, Middle Rio Grande Conservancy, Rio Arriba County, Santa Clara Pueblo, Sierra Soil and Water Conservation District (2), Socorro County, and the Timberon Development Council.

 

The success of the grant program has drawn attention from other state, federal and private entities in New Mexico.  Many of these organizations have been collaborative partners of the projects including State Forestry, US Forestry, Soil & Water Conservation Districts, and multiple non-profits and environmental groups.

 

As a result of the NMAC/BLM MOU, the New Mexico State Forestry Division signed a similar Cooperative Agreement on June 23, 2006.  “The only way our forests and watershed will regain their health is through strong, effective partnerships like the one we’re recognizing today,” said Blazer. “Our relationship with the Association of Counties will only help us improve communities around the state and help us effectively implement the New Mexico Forest and Watershed Health Plan.” This formalized an agreement for the two organizations to work jointly on projects and initiatives dealing with forest and watershed health, wildfire prevention, wildfire protection and many more cooperative activities.  In addition, the agreement will improve communication and support among Forestry officials, the NMAC and counties for forested natural resources and community issues dealing with forested land or natural resources.

 

As part of the agreement, NMAC will be able to assist New Mexico State Forestry in disseminating forest and watershed health information to counties. The NMAC will serve as a liaison for multi-county forest and watershed health projects and will assist in the development of methods for coordinating administration and financing of forestry-related work.

 

NMAC will be meeting with the US District Forester on Monday, July 17th, to discuss opportunities for collaboration similar to the partnerships with BLM and State Forestry.  The US Forest service has been a collaborative partner on many of the grant projects awarded by NMAC.

 

New Mexico counties feel strongly that local governments must work with state and federal entities to implement quality land management.  The agreements that are in place have not only provided resources and funding for wildfire projects, but have provided additional opportunities for data sharing, economic development, watershed management and new training programs related to wildfire and forest and watershed health. 

 

If you need additional information on any of the agreements or on the Wildfire Risk Reduction Grant Program, please contact the NMAC Intergovernmental Relations Manager, Joy Esparsen, at (505) 820-8111 or via email at jesparsen@nmcounties.org.  Thank you for the opportunity to share our success story with you!

 

 

Sincerely,

 

 


Gustavo “Gus” Cordóva

Executive Director

 

ATTACHMENT C

Community Wildfire Protection Plans in California

 

California communities are in the process of developing at least 69 Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPPs).  Of these 69 CWPPs, 35 are either completed or near completion.  Many of these plans are county-wide plans and all have been developed through tremendous assistance from the federal agencies, including the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service.  Unfortunately, these plans are frequently considered community plans, not integrated federal/private fire plans.  Consequently, California is not been able to take full advantage yet of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA). 

 

A review of California CWPPs by the California Fire Alliance, a cooperative membership of state and federal agencies, found adherence to the following principles would enhance the benefits received from CWPPs:

 

Designate a Generous WUI

The HFRA provides communities the opportunity to designate a locally appropriate definition and boundary for the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI).  The default definition is ½ to 1½ miles from the boundary of an at-risk community, depending on slope, geographic features and condition class or an area that is adjacent to an evacuation route.  The HFRA contains advantages for communities that designate larger WUIs by providing streamlined NEPA documentation for federal projects that are greater than 1½ miles from the community but still within the community designated WUI.  A community designated WUI of only 1½ miles loses this advantage and few of California’s CWPPs designate a WUI beyond 1 ½ miles.  Additionally, relatively few national forest or BLM lands are within 1½ miles of a community, limiting the incentives for inclusion of federal projects in CWPPs.

 

Include Projects outside the WUI

Another purpose of the HFRA is “to enhance efforts to protect watersheds and address threats to forest and rangeland health, including catastrophic wildfire, across the landscape.”  Just as with projects within a WUI, CWPPs provide opportunities for meaningful community participation in developing recommendations for private and federal projects outside the WUI.  Although not as significant as within the WUI, NEPA is streamlined for federal projects that implement community recommendations in projects outside the WUI.

 

Include Revenue Generating Projects

The CWPP provision in the HFRA is designed to coordinate efforts to reduce fire risk across the landscape.  Many California CWPPs have only included projects that require grant funding, which limits the opportunity for a coordinated approach to fire risk reduction.  It also limits the opportunity for community members to recommend a community-wide fuel reduction strategy, provide meaningful participation in federal projects and expedite implementation of federal and private projects.

 

Recommend Treatment Types and Methods

The HFRA requires CWPPs to “recommend the types and methods of treatment on Federal and non-Federal land that will protect 1 or more at-risk communities and essential infrastructure.”  Treatment recommendations are part of the NEPA and CEQA processes.  The greatest controversy frequently revolves around treatment recommendations.  Providing recommendations for the type and method of treatment that the community will support focuses land owner attention on community acceptable land management practices. 

 

Include Projects on Federal Lands

One of the purposes of the HFRA is “to reduce wildfire risk to communities, municipal water supplies, and other at-risk federal land through a collaborative process of planning, prioritizing, and implementing hazardous fuel reduction projects” (emphasis added).  Accordingly, the HFRA provides for meaningful community participation in federal project planning through the opportunity to recommend projects on federal lands.  Federal agencies benefit when implementing the community recommendations through a streamlined NEPA process, reducing planning time and expenses.  BLM has encouraged its field offices to work with communities to adopt BLM projects by providing internal direction that requires projects be incorporated into a CWPP before allocating funding for the project in 2007.  The Forest Service has not provided such direction to its field offices.  To date, many California CWPPs consist of projects almost exclusively on private lands.