On Bingaman/Daschle Forest Thinning Amendment

September 19, 2002
12:00 AM
"I rise today to introduce an amendment to expedite forest thinning on our national forests and public lands. I am pleased that Senator Daschle is a cosponsor of this amendment. I would like to thank all of my colleagues who have worked with me to craft this amendment and who offered invaluable input and expertise. "Everyone in the Senate wants to do what we can to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire. 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 also agree that it is much better to devote limited resources to proactive efforts to reduce fire risk rather than paying to fight the fires once they occur. "I have tried for years to improve the federal agencies’ forest thinning program in a variety of ways. I am also a vocal proponent for spending federal dollars conducting proactive forest restoration to reduce fire risk rather than continuing to spend billions of dollars each year fighting fires. Although some may contend that restoration costs too much money, over the long-term, it is much less expensive than fighting fires. Restoring our lands is the preferred alternative for the environment as well because, unfortunately, important species habitat burns right along with the forests during a fire. "The main obstacle constraining us from substantially increasing our proactive efforts to reduce fire risk is a lack of adequate funding. As Oregon Governor and Co-Chair for the Western Governor Association’s 10-Year Fire Plan John Kitzhaber states, 'it will take a significant investment of resources – far greater than what is envisioned to be saved through process efficiencies.' Ever since Congress first funded the National Fire Plan two years ago, I have continually emphasized the need to sustain a commitment to the FY 2001 funding levels over a long enough period of time to make a difference – at least 15 years. "Most fuel reduction projects will take several years to implement. It is critical that the agencies have reliable funding to complete the projects they start. If funding is obtained to thin trees the first year, but not to complete the slash disposal and reintroduce fire through prescribed burning the following years, short-term fire risk will be increased. Around the villages north of Truchas, some villages face a tremendous danger of fire due to slash left from thinning. According to the agencies themselves, mechanical thinning comprises only 19% annually of all hazardous fuels reduction activities. "Adequate funding means, at a minimum, sustaining fiscal year 2001 funding levels for all components of the National Fire Plan. The Western Governors Association recently sent a letter to Congress urging full funding of the National Fire Plan at the fiscal year 2001 funding levels. Similarly, recently the National Association of State Foresters compiled projected funding needs for the National Fire Plan over the next ten years based on collaborative efforts with state governments, the Forest Service, and the Department of the Interior. The Western Governors Association endorsed the State Foresters projections. The General Accounting Office (GAO) estimates that the cost to reduce fuels is about $725 million per year for the next 15 years (GAO/RCED-99-65). "The funding levels in the bill we are currently considering are far below the State Foresters and GAO’s projected funding needs. For example, while hazardous fuels reduction was increased in fiscal year 2001 and has remained relatively constant since that time, the State Foresters analysis includes $100 million more for hazardous fuels reduction than the Interior Appropriation bill provides. The State Foresters project that hazardous fuels reduction also will need to steadily increase over the next 10 years. "Other important programs that are part of the National Fire Plan, including economic action programs, community and private land fire assistance, and burned area restoration and rehabilitation have been drastically cut -– and some have been zeroed out -– by the Administration over the last two budget cycles. For some accounts included under the National Fire Plan, but not all, Congress has made up the difference. However, it would certainly be much easier to fully fund the National Fire Plan with the Administration’s support. "Funding constraints clearly affect on the ground restoration work. In New Mexico, there are several restoration projects that could make a meaningful difference in reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire if funds were available. Here are some examples: 1. Dry Lakes Project, El Rito Ranger District, Carson National Forest – This mechanical thinning and prescribed burning fuel reduction project is located on the Tusas Ridge to the southwest of the community of Tres Piedras. The ridge has an unusually high incidence of lightening strikes which put the community at high risk. Tres Piedras is on the state list of highest priority areas. The district used FY 2001 funding from the National Fire Plan to thin a large area but could not find sufficient funds in FY 2002 to complete the prescribed burning. This is particularly troubling because several forestry experts agree that thinning trees without follow up work to reintroduce fire with prescribed burns, the fire risk will increase. 2. In southern New Mexico, Otero County Commissioner Michael Nivison has worked tirelessly to encourage broad community involvement within the context of existing laws and procedures. Unfortunately, the group found that lack of funding was an obstacle to moving forward with sensible forest thinning plans. In April 2002, I requested the necessary additional funds from the Washington office of the Forest Service because no additional funding was available from the Lincoln National Forest’s budget or the Southwest Region office budget. The minimum funding needed was $1 million to complete thinning projects within the wildland/urban interface in the Rio Penasco watershed and for watershed analyses to prepare future restoration projects. Fortunately, after waiting three months, the Forest Service complied with the request. However, Commissioner Nivison estimates an additional $4 million per year for the next 10 years above existing funding levels will be needed to successfully complete the forest thinning program on the Lincoln National Forest. 3. On the Gila National Forest, the Catron County Citizens Group based in Glenwood is working to establish a sawmill to process small diameter wood removed from the forest as part of forest restoration projects and has secured non-Federal matching funds for their operation. In December 2001, I was notified that Forest Service employees had identified several restoration projects that were NEPA-ready, however, no funding was available. Once again, after specific and repeated requests, the Chief complied with the request to allocate an additional $1 million to the Gila. However, a one year special allocation clearly will not provide the long-term restoration investment needed. 4. Earlier this year, the Chief told me that the Santa Fe Municipal Watershed Project is one of the highest priorities for the Forest Service’s Southwest Region. Nonetheless, at the current rate of funding by the agency, the project will be completed in 18 years. If it were fully funded at $1 million per year, however, the project would be completed in seven years. This is a critical project for the residents of Santa Fe to protect two city-owned reservoirs that hold 40% of the city’s water supply. 5. Deer Lakes Fuel Break, Cuba Ranger District, Santa Fe National Forest – This fuel break project was put on the list of suggested projects for FY 2001 since NEPA review was complete, but it was not funded in FY ‘01 or FY ‘02. The fuel break will protect private homes in a forested subdivision. The Forest Service considers this area to be a priority. 6. Mt. Taylor Ranger District, Cibola National Forest – A number of fuel reduction projects planned on this district have been held up by insufficient funding. All of these projects were small, less than 500 acres. 7. The Collaborative Forest Restoration Program, created through legislation I sponsored two years ago, provides $5 million annually to fund a variety of forest restoration projects in many different locations in New Mexico. "Unfortunately, due to the Forest Service’s practice of borrowing from other accounts to pay for firefighting, action on this year’s projects has been suspended since July 8th. Because the Administration was unwilling, until very recently, to support repaying these accounts, it is unlikely that work will resume this year on these projects. "Beyond funding constraints, some allege that administrative appeals and lawsuits limit our ability to reduce fire risk across the country. I am willing to provide new legal authorities and exemptions from administrative appeals to address this concern. However, we should proceed carefully at this juncture and withhold from enacting sweeping changes to federal law without due consideration. If we need to make permanent changes to existing laws, we should do so next year after this issue has been debated thoroughly in the Senate including hearings and Committee business meetings. "Let me briefly describe our amendment. We propose to exempt from National Environmental Policy Act analysis all forest thinning projects located in areas that are at the highest risk of fire and remove up to 250,000 board feet of timber or 1 million board feet of salvage. We prohibit administrative appeals on these projects, thereby saving 135 days in the process. In addition, we eliminate judicial review granted under NEPA for thinning projects within ½-mile of any community structure or within certain key municipal watersheds. The combination of these provisions would save between one and one-half to three and one-half years of process. "Moreover, in order to focus the agencies’ work on the highest priority areas where human safety and property loss are the most serious, we require that 100% of hazardous fuels reduction funds be spent in the highest fire risk areas (known as condition class 3) and 70% of those funds be spent within one-half mile of any community structure or within key municipal watersheds identified in forest plans. "In order to recognize the role that forest dependent communities play in restoring our lands, we require that at least 10% 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. Finally, in order to provide robust monitoring of these experimental new authorities, we require multiparty monitoring of a representative sampling of the projects. "We agree with, and included, many provisions of Senator Craig’s amendment in our amendment. For example, Senator Craig requires the Secretaries to give highest priority to protecting communities, municipal watersheds, and areas affected by disease, insect activity, or wind throw. He requires that projects be consistent with applicable forest plans and that the Secretaries jointly develop a collaborative process to select projects. We agree with all of these provisions. "However, our amendment differs from Sen. Craig’s amendment because we felt it was appropriate to enact parameters and limitations along with the new authorities for several reasons. First, we are legislating without the benefit of the normal authorizing Committee process. If, after consideration through the authorizing Committee process, we decide to make some or all of these changes permanent, we can do so next year. "Second, the Forest Service has a poor track record with respect to supporting projects that do not harvest large trees. One example that I am aware of occurred in New Mexico. On the Gila National Forest (Sheep Basin project), there was broad agreement within the local community that a project harvesting small trees would be a win-win. The community agreed this project would both benefit the environment and generate local jobs while also reducing fire risk. The Forest Service, however, rejected the community’s proposal and insisted on following a plan to harvest large trees. "Third, many independent analyses have discovered numerous flaws with the agencies’ existing implementation of the National Fire Plan. For example, a recent General Accounting Office report severely chastised the agencies for their inability to account for where hazardous fuels reduction funds have been spent. Specifically, the GAO states: "'It is not possible to determine if the $796 million appropriated for hazardous fuels reduction in fiscal year 2001 and 2002 is targeted to the communities and other areas at highest risk of severe wildland fires.” (GAO/RCED-02-259, January 2002) "In addition, in November 2001, 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 discovered that the Forest Service “misplaced” $215 million intended for wildland fire management due to an accounting error. "Finally, another GAO report concluded that, because the Forest Service relies on the timber program for funding many of its other activities, including reducing fuels, it has often used the timber program to address the wildfire problem. GAO states, “The difficulty with such an approach, however, is that the lands with commercially valuable timber are often not those with the greatest wildfire hazards. "Additionally, there are problems with the incentives in the fuel reduction program. Currently, managers are rewarded for the number of acres on which they reduce fuels, not for reducing fuels on the lands with the highest fire hazards. Because reducing fuels in areas with greater hazards is often more expensive–meaning that fewer acres can be completed with the same funding level–managers have an incentive not to undertake efforts on such lands.” (GAO/RCED-99-65) "The parameters set forth in our amendment will ensure that the agencies conduct forest thinning in a way that truly reduces the threat of fire. For example, we require the agencies to focus on thinning projects that truly reduce the threat of fire, namely removing small diameter trees and brush. This limitation is based on numerous scientific research studies conducted by the Forest Service. Too often, the Forest Service has cut large trees because of their commercial value instead of removing small-diameter trees that tend to spread fire. "Our amendment prohibits new road construction in inventoried roadless areas because the National Forests already contain 380,000 miles of road (as a comparison, the National Highway System contains 160,000 miles of roads) and the deferred maintenance needs on these existing roads totals more than $1 billion. Forest Service analysis reveals that roads increase the probability of accidental and intentional human-caused ignitions. "A group of respected forest fire scientists recently wrote President Bush a letter stating that, “thinning of overstory trees, like building new roads, can often exacerbate the situation and damage forest health.” Moreover, the vast majority of all trees in the west are small, more than 90% are 12 inches in diameter or smaller. "Returning receipts to the Treasury is consistent with a provision in the Wyden/Craig county payments legislation enacted two years ago and avoids existing perverse incentives. Numerous GAO reports reveal that existing agency trust funds provide incentives for the agency to cut large trees because it gets to keep the revenue. Cutting large trees will not reduce fire risk, therefore, we should direct receipts back to the Treasury. Jeremy Fried, a Forest Service Research specialist at the Pacific Northwest Research Station, states, 'If you take just big trees, you don’t reduce fire danger.' "The provision in our amendment stating that 70% of Hazardous Fuels Reduction Funds be spent within one-half mile of any community structure or within key municipal watersheds is more flexible than the President’s FY ‘03 budget request which provides that the same percentage only be spent near communities. We in Congress must ensure that the agencies adhere to our direction that the number one priority is to protect communities at risk from catastrophic fire. To date, this has not occurred. In FY 2002, only 39% of the acres where hazardous fuels will be treated are in the wildland/urban interface. In FY 2003, only 55% of the acres scheduled to be treated are near communities. Finally, we need hard and fast assurances that the agencies will make its investments near communities because the National Fire Plan and the Western Governors’ Association identify protecting people as the number one priority. "We are willing to provide the agencies with additional authority as set forth in our amendment but only to achieve the number of acres treated that can be accomplished without a substantial increase in funds. My amendment doubles the amount of acreage treated to reduce fire risk in the upcoming year from 2.5 million to 5 million acres whereas Senator Craig’s amendment covers 10 million acres of federal land. "It is impossible for the agencies, even with the expedited procedures included in Senator Craig’s amendment, to quadruple the amount of acres treated annually. Since fiscal year 2001, Congress has provided about $400 million annually for hazardous fuels reduction. With this level of funding, the agencies have treated approximately 2.5 million acres each year. For fiscal year 2003, the Senate Interior Appropriations bill provides $414 million for hazardous fuels reduction, fully funding the Administration’s request. Again, the agencies estimate they will complete treatment on about 2.5 million acres. Senator Craig’s amendment does not provide any additional funds, therefore, it is incorrect to purport that now, suddenly, the agencies will quadruple the amounts of acres treated. "Moreover, we do not need to treat every acre of land to reduce fire risk. New Mexicans and others living in the West want their government to quickly and intelligently address the excessive build-up of hazardous fuels. If we’re going to leverage limited government funds to solve this problem, we need to figure out in advance which forested lands need to be treated and how. "To act quickly and strategically to prevent catastrophic fires, we do not need to treat every single acre of national forest and public lands. Instead, we should create firebreaks and other strategically thinned areas to stop fires from spreading out of control over large areas. A respected Forest Service researcher named Mark Finney has estimated that treatments need only address 20% of the landscape, if thinned areas are strategically placed to make fires move perpendicular to the prevailing winds. The Forest Service should experiment with Finney’s ideas and those of others about how to most strategically place thinning projects. The less acres the government needs to treat, the further our existing funds will stretch. "The board feet levels in this amendment are identical to the levels previously set forth for categorical exclusions by the Forest Service. Almost three years ago, a Federal district court invalidated these categorical exclusions primarily because the agency literally lost its administrative record. Notably, the court left room for the agency to reinstate these categorical exclusions but for some reason the agency still has not done so. This approach also will benefit local businesses by requiring the agency to implement relatively smaller projects. Residents of Truchas, NM tell me that the using categorical exclusions improves the ability of local federal land managers to make site specific decisions that address community needs. "At this point in time, I do not believe we need to expedite judicial review beyond what we offer in our amendment. Prohibiting any temporary restraining orders or preliminary injunctions, which is what the Republican and Administration proposals would do, makes any judicial review effectively irrelevant. In addition, on August 31, 2001, the General Accounting Office reported that, of the hazardous fuels reduction projects identified for implementation in FY 2001, none had been litigated. "In conclusion, our amendment represents a thoughtful, balanced approach to expedite forest thinning in a way that truly reduces fire risk for communities and the environment." # # #