Manchin Questions Witnesses on Improving Federal Forest and Wildfire Management

March 12, 2024

To watch a video of Senator Manchin’s opening remarks, please click here. 

To watch a video of Senator Manchin’s questioning, please click here.

Washington, DC – Today, U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Joe Manchin (D-WV) held a hearing to examine the findings and recommendations of the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission [the Commission]. The 50-person Commission was created by Chairman Manchin’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law with the directive to recommend policies to improve federal forest and wildfire management. During the hearing, Chairman Manchin discussed the growing severity and impact of wildfires, the Commission’s 167 unanimous recommendations and how federal agencies can incorporate these recommendations.

“The severity of these fires has also become a significant drain on U.S. resources and productivity, even beyond the devastating loss of life and property. For starters, U.S. spending on fire suppression has increased by 300% since the 1980’s, even after accounting for inflation. Wildfires also slow down business and tourism, and severely burned landscapes filter less water, store less carbon and transport more sediment to our streams and reservoirs. The National Institute of Standards and Technology attempted to quantify the economic impact of these fires in 2017 and found that the costs and losses could exceed $400 billion per year,” said Chairman Manchin.

Chairman Manchin discussed the Commission’s 167 recommendations, including proposals targetedat federal land management agencies and increasing firefighter pay. 

“Clearly, with 167 recommendations, you [the Commission] discovered plenty of issues and your conversations generated plenty of ideas. Some of these were topics that our Committee has covered in past hearings, or that have existing legislative proposals in Congress to address them. For example, the Commission noted that many areas with high fire risk are characterized by small-diameter, low-value trees. Expanding the universe of wood products made from small-diameter timber could radically expand the areas where thinning treatments are both necessary and profitable. A bill that I introduced with Ranking Member Barrasso last year, the America’s Revegetation and Carbon Sequestration Act, would do just that,” said Chairman Manchin. 

“The Commission also noted the need to fix a problem related to firefighter retirement benefits that our Committee has discussed before. Currently, if a firefighter takes a break of more than 3 days during a twenty-year career, that firefighter gives up their special retirement benefits. Ranking Member Barrasso and I have worked on another bill together, the Promoting Effective Forest Management Act, which would fix this problem,” continued Chairman Manchin.

During the hearing, Chairman Manchin questioned witnesses about post-fire recovery and the harvesting of hazardous trees.

“Scientists have increasingly seen that forest ecosystems simply do not recover from these severe wildfires without human intervention – instead they convert into shrubland. Hazardous trees remain on the landscape far past the point where they could be harvested for value. I’ve said this many times, I was out at Yellowstone when they had horrendous fires and could not believe that we had not harvested those trees as they were going to rot there. Has any consideration been given to allowing timbering to come in after a devastating fire to harvest the best we can to ensure new growth will come back in a quicker, better way?” asked Chairman Manchin.

“Colville also has a very aggressive post-fire restoration strategy that includes salvage logging to the extent that a local newspaper took a picture of a logging truck hauling smoking logs into the mill at one point a few years back,” replied Mr. Cody Desautel, Executive Director of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.

“Does the Department of the Interior stop you? They always tell me they’re not allowed to do this, or they didn’t get permits to do this…Is Interior still taking that position?” asked Chairman Manchin.

“At Colville, at least the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] Superintendent has signed off on these through expedited NEPA processes. Those exercises are done ahead of time in our forest management plan so we know fire salvage will be part of our forest management, so we evaluate those impacts ahead of time,” said Mr. Desautel. 

Chairman Manchin asked witnesses about recommendations for the use of aircraft for wildfire detection.

“The Commission also examined the ways that the Forest Service and DOI use aircraft for wildfire detection, suppression, firefighter transport, or even igniting prescribed fires. Can you discuss the process the Commission took to try to get a baseline understanding on the uses and effectiveness of fire aviation?” asked Chairman Manchin.

“It was a struggle. There’s a lot of data that’s tough to interpret because we have incident management teams that order more than they need to or don’t place orders because they don’t think they’ll get the order filled. So, we tried to look at the existing infrastructure, how it had been used successfully in wildfire suppression, and what the needs were outside of suppression for things like fuels treatments and otherwise,” said Mr. Desautel.

“Did the Commission come to an understanding, or a unanimous decision on this?” continued Chairman Manchin.

“The unanimous decision was we needed more data that was reliable and that we would look at a Standards of Cover approach to what the air fleet should look like across all jurisdictions really — state, private and federal,” said Mr. Desautel. 

The hearing featured witnesses from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of the Interior, Confederate Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Denver Water and the Wyoming State Forestry Division. 

To watch the hearing in full, please click here.