Wildfire Management Programs at Federal Land Management Agencies

June 14, 2011
01:51 PM
Opening Statement of Chairman Bingaman
Wildfire Management Programs
At Federal Land Management Agencies
“The purpose of our hearing this morning is to consider the Federal land management agencies’ wildfire management programs.
“It’s been a dynamic year of severe weather: intense tornadoes and flooding throughout much of the United States, extreme drought and wildfire activity in the Southwest and much of the South.  The overall trend of increasing drought and wildfire in the West and Southwest have been attributed by numerous scientific reports to climate change, including the recent report of our National Academy of Sciences, entitled ‘America’s Climate Choices.’
“Since climate change will continue into the future, we can expect the incidences of severe weather and the further drying-out of the already arid regions of the West to continue.
“In the news this last week, we’ve seen the kinds of challenges that we will continue to face.  Federal land management agencies currently are battling some very severe wildfires in Arizona, which are now coming into New Mexico, and in Colorado, Alaska, and elsewhere.  Of course, we want to express our concern for the families who have lost their homes and for those whose property remains at-risk.  We also want to express our gratitude to the thousands of firefighters and wildfire managers who are working tirelessly to protect lives, property and natural resources.
“The challenges posed by the larger and more intense drought and wildfires have called for a variety of policy changes to adapt to these new realities.  As a result of some of the policies that we have urged here in this Committee, for the first time in years, I believe the agencies are making progress on a range of critical wildfire management issues.  Let me mention five of those:
  1. The FLAME Act established a framework for rational budgeting of emergency wildfire suppression expenses that can help to avoid the enormous disruptions and inefficiencies that frequently have occurred when regular appropriations are insufficient to cover unanticipated emergency costs.
  1. In response to the FLAME Act, the agencies finally have developed a strong framework for a cohesive wildfire management strategy—and they deserve credit for that.
  1. The agencies are successfully employing collaborative, landscape-scale projects that reduce fuels and wildfire costs, and that improve forest and watershed health.
  1. With the support of the economic stimulus package from a few years ago, the Forest Service reduced wildfire risk by conducting fuel and restoration treatments across a record number of acres during the last two years.
  1. And finally, the agencies are fighting fires in a more cost-effective manner since adopting a more flexible management response protocol and utilizing state-of-the-art predictive technologies.
“Certainly there are significant challenges that remain.  Forest health and wildfire management are related areas where I think we need to be careful in our important effort to reduce spending.  I fear we may be heading toward an approach that turns out to be penny wise but pound foolish. 
“For example, the agencies do not have adequate resources to reduce hazardous fuels and restore forest and rangeland health, particularly against a background of growing climate-related vulnerability.  And recent cuts to the Forest Service workforce are accelerating the problem of a rapidly diminishing force of available critical firefighters. 
“The result is likely to be significantly higher costs to taxpayers and the economy as a result of severe wildfires.
“Another challenge that looms large given our fiscal situation is the fact that the nation’s remaining fleet of aging air tankers needs to be replaced or restored in the near future.  The cost for doing that will be quite substantial and it cannot be covered from within the agencies’ existing budgets.
“I hope our witnesses can help us understand how we can continue to make progress in wildfire management.”
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