Keeping Sight of the Forests

June 23, 2003
12:00 AM
Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM, ranking member of the Senate Energy Committee), joined by Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD), today introduced legislation to help prevent fires in national forests and on public lands. The Bingaman-Daschle Forest Health Bill will make is easier to remove underbrush and small trees from public lands to make them less susceptible to blazes. The wildfires last year which claimed the lives of 20 firefighters and consumed more than 6 million acres, along with the uncontrolled wildfire that is currently charring southern Arizona, underscore the urgency of lowering wildfire risks. The Bingaman-Daschle bill, in addition to speeding action of fuels reduction in fire-prone areas, protects communities, protects the environment, helps small businesses, ensures accountability, addresses insect infestation and provides assistance to states and tribes: Expedites Action: Categorically excludes fuel reduction projects on 20 million acres conducted in high fire risk areas from environmental review documentation and appeals Protects Communities: Seventy percent of the hazardous fuel reduction funds available must be spent on projects within one-half mile of communities or municipal watersheds. Protects the Environment: No new road construction. Must maintain old and large trees. Protect municipal watersheds. Helps Small Business: Thirty percent of the funds must be spent on projects that benefit small businesses in small, economically disadvantaged communities. Ensures Accountability: Commission to monitor projects and report to Congress. Insect Infestation: Provides $25 million annually to establish an insect infestation research program in cooperation with universities. Assistance to states: Provides $100 million annually in grants to reduce wildfire risk on state, tribal and private lands. Here are Sen. Bingaman’s floor remarks that were placed into today’s Record: COLLABORATIVE FOREST HEALTH ACT BINGAMAN: "Mr. President, today I am introducing comprehensive legislation to expedite forest thinning and improve forest health on our national forests and public lands. I am pleased that Senator Daschle is a cosponsor of this bill. "Everyone in the Senate wants to do what we can to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire. We all agree on the 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 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. Although some may contend that restoration costs too much money, over the long-term, it is much less expensive than fighting fires. "Every year, the Forest Service borrows funds from other accounts to pay for firefighting. It is clear that this practice substantially contributes to project delays and cancellations. For example, in 2002 alone, the Forest Service states that – 'some critical projects in New Mexico were postponed for up to one year as a result of fire borrowing. These include wildland-urban interface fuels projects on the Carson, Gila, Lincoln, and Santa Fe National Forests. A contract for construction of a fuelbreak around a community at risk on the Cibola National Forest was postponed for six months.' "The legislation I am introducing today eliminates the current fire borrowing practice by authorizing the Forest Service, during years in which the agencies’ firefighting costs exceed its budget, to borrow funds directly from the Treasury. I urge my colleagues to reject any bill purporting to decrease on-the-ground delays if it does not address this problem. "A 2002 report by the National Academy of Public Administration, and a letter to Congress from the Society of American Foresters dated November 2002, confirms that the main obstacle constraining us from increasing our efforts to reduce fire risk is a lack of adequate funding. Clearly, the Forest Service’s fire borrowing practice contributes to this lack of funding. Ever since Congress first funded the National Fire Plan more than 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. "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 three 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. "Beyond funding constraints, some allege that administrative appeals and lawsuits limit our ability to reduce fire risk across the country. As set forth in my legislation, I am willing to provide new legal authorities and exemptions from administrative appeals to address this concern. "Let me briefly describe the expedited procedures provisions of our bill. We propose to exempt from National Environmental Policy Act analysis all forest thinning projects located near communities or in municipal watersheds that remove up to 250,000 board feet of timber or one million board feet of salvage timber. 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 one-half mile of at risk communities or within certain municipal watersheds. The combination of these provisions would save between one and one-half to three and one-half years of process. "Targeting the expedited procedures to areas near communities and in municipal watersheds is consistent with a 2002 National Academy of Public Administration report recommending that the Federal government conduct fuels reduction treatments near communities and municipal watersheds before treating more distant areas. We also require that seventy percent of forest thinning funds be spent within these critical areas. "We agree with, and included, some provisions similar to ones found in H.R. 1904. For example, our bill covers the same amount of Federal land, namely, up to 20 million acres. H.R. 1904 requires the Secretaries to select projects through a collaborative process and give priority to protecting communities and municipal watersheds. Moreover, H.R. 1904 requires that projects be consistent with applicable forest and resource management plans. I agree with all of these provisions. "Both bills establish systematic programs, in cooperation with colleges and universities, to gather information on insect infestations that can be applied to forest management treatments. However, our bill provides actual funds, $25 million annually, to implement the program whereas H.R. 1904 does not. "This bill differs from H.R. 1904 in some other important aspects. Our bill comprehensively addresses the issue of on the ground delay by doing away with the Forest Service’s fire borrowing practice and exempting the Forest Service from the Competitive Sourcing Initiative. "Our legislation provides $100 million annually to reduce fire risk and restore burned areas on non-Federal lands. Forest Service researchers state that seventy-seven percent of all high risk areas are on non-Federal lands. In addition, the National Academy of Public Administration’s 2002 report notes that forty-seven percent of acres burned each year are non-Federal lands and stated that decreasing fuels on all owners’ lands is needed to address the large scope of the fire hazard problem. Moreover, given that the Administration has zeroed out funding for burned area restoration and rehabilitation, the secure funding provided by our bill is desperately needed to protect communities from landslides and other adverse effects of catastrophic wildfire. "The bill I am introducing today recognizes the role that forest dependent communities play in restoring our lands by requiring that at least thirty 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. In order to provide robust monitoring of new authorities, we require that an independent commission report to Congress on the results of the program and that the agencies establish a multiparty monitoring program. H.R. 1904 does not contain similar provisions. "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. Moreover, slash that is left on the ground increases the likelihood of beetle infestations. The bill I am introducing today ensures that agencies address long-term fuels management whereas H.R. 1904 does not contain any similar provision. "At this point in time, I do not believe we need to expedite judicial review beyond what we offer in this bill. The judicial review limitations in H.R. 1904 are excessive. In May 2003, GAO completed an analysis of Forest Service decisions involving fuel reduction activities. In the first two years of activity under the National Fire Plan, GAO found that only three percent of all of the decisions were litigated covering 100,000 acres. Decisions affecting the remaining 4.6 million acres treated in those two years proceeded without any litigation. "H.R. 1904 provides new legal authorities and judicial review limitations without regard to many independent analyses that have discovered numerous flaws with the agencies’ existing implementation of the National Fire Plan. 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 bill will ensure that the agencies conduct forest thinning in a way that truly reduces the threat of fire and improves forest health. For example, we require the agencies to focus on thinning projects that remove small diameter trees. 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. 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.” "Our bill prohibits new road construction in roadless areas whereas H.R. 1904 contains no similar provision. 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. "Returning receipts to the Treasury is consistent with a provision in Senator Wyden and Senator Craig’s 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 bill stating that seventy percent of hazardous fuels reduction funds be spent within one-half mile of at risk communities or within municipal watersheds is necessary because GAO recently found that more than two-thirds of the Forest Service’s decisions involving fuels reduction activities were targeted exclusively at lands outside of the wildland/urban interface. H.R. 1904 contains no similar provision. "In conclusion, our bill represents a comprehensive and balanced approach to expedite forest thinning and improve forest health. 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. # # #