Democratic News

Mar 08 2016

Cantwell Outlines Key Principles of Bipartisan Fire Bill: Better Fire Preparedness Will Lower Risks to Our Forests and Costs to Our Communities

Cantwell Also Questions Forest Service Chief Tidwell on Wildfire Prevention, Funding Roads and Mining in National Forests

Washington, D.C. – Today, Ranking Member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) outlined key principles of an upcoming, bipartisan fire bill at a committee hearing with Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. Sen. Cantwell has been working with Chairman Murkowski on this legislation for months.

Last summer, as the state was still recovering from the Carlton Complex, Washington experienced the worst fire season in state history. In one month, more than one million acres burned in Washington – an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. The Colville Tribe lost 20 percent of its timber - $1 billion worth of timber. Three firefighters were killed and another was severely burnt.

During the hearing, Sen. Cantwell called for better fire preparedness to lower risks to our forests and costs to our communities. Sen. Cantwell’s fire bill aims to help fewer homes burn down, keep our firefighters safe and decrease the intensity of fires so they can be managed better.

Specifically, Sen. Cantwell called for:
-Increasing our communities’ preparedness through hazardous fuels reduction, prescribed fire, FireWise ® and risk-mapping;
-Improving the efficiency of our operations and ensuring aircraft is available when needed;
-Funding fire suppression responsibly and
-Increasing our use of technology, including unmanned aerial vehicles and GPS, so we can more accurately see the locations of “spot” fires when firefighters are sent out.  

Sen. Cantwell asked Chief Tidwell about the cost savings of investing more in preparedness, asking if hazardous fuels reduction treatments were done around houses would these treatments lower costs. Chief Tidwell responded: “We have dozens – probably hundreds – of examples now where we’ve thinned out our forests and it’s reduced the threat, made it easier for us to suppress the fires and made it safer for our firefighters.”

Ascot Mine Proposal

During the hearing, Sen. Cantwell also asked Chief Tidwell about proposed mining in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, adjacent to the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. The exploratory mining development would cover 900 acres – 165 of those acres were purchased using money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. These lands were purchased for conservation and recreation, and yet the Forest Service is saying the lands are available for mining.

The latest round of environmental assessments under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) states that the proposed mine is consistent with the purpose of the land. Sen. Cantwell asked:

Why would the Forest Service allow for this proposal to move forward if you had previously helped to acquire the land through the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF)? … It’s hard for me to believe that a NEPA document would say that there’s no impact when, literally, LWCF is about preserving areas for recreation and public access for the future.”

Chief Tidwell conceded, “I want to look at how we can avoid these problems from happening in the future.”  

Roads Funding

The Forest Service manages 360,000 miles of roads – eight times larger than the National Highway System. The road system is outdated, as it was built decades ago primarily for logging but is now used primarily for recreation.

The Forest Service is proposing to close a number of roads on the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest for lack of maintenance funding, although many businesses rely on these roads. It doesn’t make economic sense to close some of these roads.

It also does not make sense to request a 13-percent decrease in road maintenance funding, given an existing $3 billion backlog. Sen. Cantwell asked: “How can we be proposing new roads when we have this backlog of maintenance?

Chief Tidwell responded: “The majority of our road budget goes to maintenance, and we are proposing to spend $6 million on some new roads. I will be glad to provide for the record where those roads will be located and the purpose of those roads.”

Read her opening statement from earlier today.
Read more on the Seattle field hearing on fire.