Bingaman Takes Lead on Wildfire Prevention

Plan Targets Build-Up of Hazardous Fuels; Community, Environmental Protection Key Elements

September 19, 2002
12:00 AM
Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), joined by Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD), today unveiled a proposal to help prevent wildfires in national forests and on public lands. The Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee chairman offered the measure as an amendment to $19.3 billion Interior Appropriations bill. The Bingaman-Daschle plan will make it easier to remove underbrush and small trees from public lands to make them less susceptible to blazes. The wildfires this summer which have claimed the lives of 20 firefighters and consumed more than 6 million acres (double the 10-year summer average) underscore the urgency of lowering wildfire risks. “Everyone who lives in the West wants their government to quickly and intelligently address the excessive build-up of hazardous fuels,” Bingaman said. “Senator Daschle and I believe that our plan represents a thoughtful, balanced approach to expedite forest thinning in a way that truly reduces fire risk for communities and for the environment.” The Bingaman-Daschle proposal, in addition to speeding action on fuels reduction in fire-prone areas, protects communities, protects the environment, helps small businesses and ensures accountability. It requires federal firefighting agencies to develop a collaborative process to select projects, and that these projects be consistent with existing forest plans. To focus work on areas where human safety and property loss are most endangered, the amendment requires that 100 percent of hazardous fuels reduction funds be spent in the highest fire risk areas, and 70 percent of those funds be spent within a half-mile of any community or within key municipal watersheds. Thinning activities in high risk areas will be exempted from certain environmental reviews under the plan. In addition, administrative and legal reviews would be limited for projects within a half-mile of any community. Together, these provisions would save up to three and a half-years of process. In recognition of the role that forest-dependent communities play in restoring lands, the Bingaman/ Daschle proposal requires that at least 10 percent of hazardous fuels reduction funds be spent on projects that benefit small businesses that use hazardous fuels and are located in small, economically disadvantaged communities. “We modified our proposal several times from its original form to try to find common ground with our Republican colleagues,” Bingaman noted. “For example, we increased the new amount of acreage that can be treated this year to 2.5 million (up from 1.25 million). In addition, based on Forest Service research, we initially defined the wildland/urban interface as a quarter-mile from any community. Realizing that many of our friends from the other side of the aisle felt that definition was too limiting, we changed it to a half-mile.” But the Bingaman-Daschle amendment differs from a Republican proposal because its sponsors felt it was appropriate to enact parameters and limitations along with the new authorities, for several reasons: – The Senate is legislating without the benefit of the normal authorizing committee process. If, after consideration by the authorizing committee, it is decided to make some or all of these changes permanent, the Senate can do so next year. – The U.S. Forest Service has a poor track record with respect to supporting projects that do not harvest large trees. An example Bingaman cited occurred in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, where the local community agreed that harvesting small trees would benefit the environment, generate local jobs and reduce fire risk. The Forest Service rejected the community’s proposal and insisted on following a plan to harvest large trees. – Independent analyses have discovered numerous flaws with the agencies’ existing implementation of the National Fire Plan. A recent GAO report severely chastised the agencies for their inability to account for where hazardous fuels reduction funds have been spent. In addition, last November, the Inspector General for the Department of Agriculture found that the Forest Service was inappropriately spending its burned area restoration funds to prepare commercial timber sales. Similarly, it was recently revealed that the Forest Service “misplaced” $215 million intended for wildland fire management. “Everyone in the Senate wants to do what we can to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire,” said Bingaman said. “We all agree that we need to accelerate fuels reduction activities because the risk of severe fire is so high. Ongoing drought, past fire suppression policies and overly-excessive harvesting of timber have all contributed to the problem. All of us agree that it is better to devote limited resources to proactive efforts to reduce fire risk than it is to pay to fight the fires once they occur.” # # #