Barrasso: Workforce and Forest Management are Key Wildfire Priorities

June 8, 2023

Click here to watch Ranking Member Barrasso’s remarks.  

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, U.S. Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources (ENR), delivered remarks at a hearing to examine the federal response to escalating wildfires and to evaluate reforms to land management and wildland firefighter recruitment and retention.

The hearing featured testimony from Mr. Jeffrey Rupert, Director, Office of Wildland Fire at the U.S. Department of the Interior; Ms. Jaelith Hall-Rivera, Deputy Chief of State, Private, and Tribal Forestry at the United States Forest Service; Ms. Kelly Norris, Interim State Forester, Wyoming State Forestry Division; and Mr. Cardell D. Johnson, Director, Natural Resources and Environment at the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

For more information on witness testimony click here.

Senator Barrasso’s remarks:

“Thanks so much, Mr. Chairman. Thanks so much for holding this hearing today.

“Wildfires in Canada have ushered in smoke and poor air quality right here in Washington, D.C. this morning.

“This is what we have been experiencing far too frequently in Wyoming and throughout the West.

“And it is a sobering reminder that we must manage our forests to make them more resilient to catastrophic fires.

“In recent years, our western states have endured wildfires of unprecedented scale and destructiveness.

“These fires ravaged forests, destroyed communities, and upended lives and livelihoods.

“On average, roughly 8 million acres burned each year between 2017 and 2022.

“That’s more than double the average annual acreage burned in the 1990s.

“Western states are again bracing for what will likely be another devastating wildfire season this summer.

“As fire seasons have become longer and more destructive, fire suppression costs have increased dramatically.

“Over the last five years, suppression costs averaged $2.86 billion a year.

“In 2021, agencies spent a record over $4 billion on suppression activities.

“It is unsustainable to keep throwing more and more money and resources at suppression without dramatically increasing mitigation.

“Waiting for our forests and communities to burn is not a defensible strategy.

“America’s wildfire crisis will continue to escalate until our forests are properly managed.

“Our forests are overgrown and they are unhealthy.

“This is due to decades of misguided policies, including a hands-off approach to management and associated declines in sawmill infrastructure.

“Between Forest Service and Department of Interior lands, over 100 million acres are at elevated risk to high-intensity, catastrophic fires.

“Mr. Chairman, that is more than six times the size of West Virginia.

“Fires on federal lands are typically much larger and much more destructive than fires that ignite on state or private lands.

“In a report from last summer, the Congressional Budget Office concluded that fires on federal lands are five times larger than those on nonfederal lands.

“That is why in this Committee, we have heard time and time again that federal agencies must increase the pace and scale of fire mitigation.

“These increases cannot be incremental.

“Mitigation needs to increase by orders of magnitude.

“This includes the removal of hazardous fuels through mechanical thinning and prescribed burn projects.

“We’ve heard from both the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior that a paradigm shift is needed.

“Congress has given agencies billions of dollars in additional taxpayer funding.

“We have heard ambitious rhetoric.

“We have seen lines drawn on maps.

“What we have yet to see is progress at the pace necessary to actually address the problem.

“We know that too often, such progress is stopped by regulatory red tape and harmful litigation that prevent critical fire mitigation projects from moving forward.

“This Committee has considered legislative solutions to cut red tape and stop frivolous lawsuits.

“They include Senator Daines’ bill to undo the disastrous Cottonwood decision, which has tied up important fire prevention in the courts;

“Senator Risch’s FIRESHEDS Act, which would enhance collaboration and cut regulatory red tape in high-risk, fire-prone areas;

“And Mr. Chairman, the bill you mentioned earlier – the bill that you and I have together – the Promoting Effective Forest Management Act, which would increase agency transparency and require the use of streamlined authorities.

“I’m hopeful that in this Congress, we can actually act on these badly needed reforms.

“One of the major consequences of the wildfire crisis is the effect it has had on brave firefighters.

“A recent Government Accountability Office report concludes that increased wildfire activity across the West is straining the federal wildland firefighting workforce.

“Factors such as low pay, poor work-life balance, and the mental and physical health challenges from fighting longer and more brutal fire seasons all are hurting the firefighting workforce.

“For years, our firefighters have been asked to do too much for too little in return.

“The only way to ensure we will have enough firefighters to defend our forests into the future is to ensure that they are fully supported and compensated.

“These are issues we need to address.

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I look forward to today’s hearing and testimony.”