We’ve written before about the June 23 hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, but it’s worth revisiting because it’s so indicative of the consensus that is starting to build to end the practice of “fire borrowing” and to also find ways to spur more active management of our federal forests.
Federal officials aren’t just talking in broad platitudes about the need for reform – they are showing passion for the poor health of our forests and urgency to make them healthier.
Here is Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., during the hearing:
“There is no secret here, I’ve discussed this issue with various people. This is about whether we can get comfortable with the response to what’s happening (in our forests). Can we all agree, which I’m hearing from scientists in my state, the University of Washington and others, who are saying these pine forests are going to burn down. Now, I would prefer to keep them, but if they are going to burn down, guess what? I don’t get to keep them. Now, I can get them managed, I can get the fuel reduced, I can put them in CLT (cross-laminated timber), I can make sure that the mills stay open by giving them long-term contracts so they can continue to process, so to me that’s a win-win-win situation. Because if I don’t get to keep the pine forests, because they are going to burn down, I would rather have some of it reduced and save the federal government dollars, secure our communities, and actually be proud of the management of our timber products into CLT.”
In her opening statement at the hearing, Cantwell mentioned a video from the Spokane Tribe with extraordinary time-lapse video showing the efficiency of the tribe’s forest fuel reduction program in the face of a wildfire. In the video (beginning at the 3:30 mark), viewers can see the forest fire rage last year through various points on tribal land, burning only underbrush and leaving the trees intact.
Cantwell was speaking in favor of legislation she co-sponsored that would end the U.S. Forest Service practice of “fire borrowing” — raiding other parts of the agency’s budget to pay for record wildfires. The bill also includes a “pine pilot,” a pilot fire fuel reduction project.
In this pilot, we would provide the tools to the (Forest Service), such as long-term contracts to individual mills with a preference for cross-laminated timber, so we are actually securing more sustainable buildings. These tools will help us get the work done AND help us have a much more proactive discussion than the discussion that happens after the fire. We need to do more fuel reduction.
Implementing this program would change fire risk. There’s a great video out there that the Spokane Tribe just released on how their recent fuel treatments fared in last summer’s Carpenter Road Fire. I recommend everyone look it up…They actually installed time-lapse cameras in the pine forests where the fire burned through. The video provides compelling evidence of the value that the pine pilot can have on the National Forests and Bureau of Land Management lands.
Cantwell also described a 2015 Harvard University paper that “shows the close connection between ponderosa pine forests and the large fires that we have been experiencing. Scientists tell us that restoring the health of ponderosa pine forests through thinning and prescribed fire is among the best, most effective way to deal with this issue.”
Robert Bonnie, Under Secretary for Natural Resources & Environment in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, testified that the practice of “fire borrowing” needs to end in order to give the Forest Service more money for fuel reduction projects like that done by the Spokane Tribe.
Fire suppression costs now consumes greater than 50 percent of the Forest Service budget. Fiscal Year (FY) 201 marked the eighth time since FY 2002 the Forest Service needed to transfer funds from non-fire accounts to pay for fire suppression. Even more devastating, in order to cover the 10-year average cost of suppression in FY 2017, more than $237 million will be reallocated away from accomplishing work such as forest restoration projects that would help reduce the risk of future fires. Congress relies on the 10-year average cost of fire suppression to appropriate funds,even though this metric cannot keep up with the increasing costs as wildfires burn bigger and hotter with climate change. These are dollars lost to fire before a single fire even starts and cannot be regained through transfer repayment. They are permanently shifted to fire and away from additional work that could be accomplished if the $237 million were applied towards restoration efforts on the ground.
As we noted last month, Washington Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark also testified at the June 23 hearing. The Washington Department of Natural Resources, which Goldmark heads, posted its own rundown of the hearing.