The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry will hold a hearing at 10 a.m. ET, November 5 to hear expert testimony about the impact of the federal wildfire budget on natural resources. The list of people who will provide advice to the committee primarily includes individuals from organizations involved with animals and water.
Dan Dessecker, Director of Conservation Policy, Ruffed Grouse Society/American Woodcock Society, Rice Lake, Wis.
William R. Dougan, National President, National Federation of Federal Employees, Washington, D.C.
Ken Stewart, Chair, Board of Trustees, American Forest Foundation, Marietta, Ga.
Chris Treese, Manager, External Affairs Department, Colorado River Water Conservation District (Colorado River District), Glenwood Springs, Colo.
Chris Wood, President & CEO, Trout Unlimited, Arlington, Va.
The U.S. Forest Service has released a report that addresses the effects of the rapidly increasing costs of suppressing wildfires. Below is an excerpt:
…This report documents the growth over the past 20 years of the portion of the Forest Service’s budget that is dedicated to fire, and the debilitating impact those rising costs are having on the recreation, restoration, planning, and other activities of the Forest Service.
In 1995, fire made up 16 percent of the Forest Service’s annual appropriated budget—this year, for the first time, more than 50 percent of the Forest Service’s annual budget will be dedicated to wildfire.
Along with this shift in resources, there has also been a corresponding shift in staff, with a 39 percent reduction in all non-fire personnel. Left unchecked, the share of the budget devoted to fire in 2025 could exceed 67 percent, equating to reductions of nearly $700 million from non-fire programs compared to today’s funding levels. That means that in just 10 years, two out of every three dollars the Forest Service gets from Congress as part of its appropriated budget will be spent on fire programs.
As more and more of the agency’s resources are spent each year to provide the firefighters, aircraft, and other assets necessary to protect lives, property, and natural resources from catastrophic wildfires, fewer and fewer funds and resources are available to support other agency work—including the very programs and restoration projects that reduce the fire threat.
The depletion of non-fire programs to pay for the ever-increasing costs of fire has real implications, not only for the Forest Service’s restoration work that would help prevent catastrophic fires, but also for the protection of watersheds and cultural resources, upkeep of programs and infrastructure that support thousands of recreation jobs and billions of dollars of economic growth in rural communities, and support for the range of multiple uses, benefits and ecosystem services, as well as research, technical assistance, and other programs that deliver value to the American public…
Legislation that would pay for wildfire suppression like other natural disasters are funded has been talked about in Washington for years but Congress has not been motivated to address the issue.
Below is the witness list for a field hearing that will be held before the Senate’s Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on Thursday, August 27, 2015 at 11:30 a.m. PDT in the Pigott Auditorium of Seattle University (located at Su Campus Walk). The purpose of the hearing is to receive testimony on opportunities to improve the organizational response of the Federal agencies in the management of wildland fires.
North Pole Fire west of Custer, SD, March 3, 2015. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
The House of Representatives has passed another bill that would suspend some environmental laws so that more logging can occur in federal forests. Similar to one passed in the House in 2013, it would enhance fire prevention and restoration, according to the proponents of the legislation which has three supporters in the Senate who introduced it there.
…Just as they did in 2013, supporters of this legislation are using the public’s fear of forest fires to advance their agenda. They argue that overgrown and “unhealthy” forests raise the risk of wildfires, and that the government has been hampered by litigation and environmental reviews from allowing timber companies to thin forests to reduce the risk of fire.
The legislation is rooted in falsehoods and misconceptions.
Some of the bill’s supporters claim that environmental laws regulating commercial logging have led to more intense fires. But, as we saw in the 2013 fire near Yosemite, known as the Rim Fire and one of the largest in California history, commercial logging and the clear-cutting of forests do not reduce fire intensity.
In the case of the Rim Fire, our research found that protected forest areas with no history of logging burned least intensely. There was a similar pattern in other large fires in recent years. Logging removes the mature, thick-barked, fire-resistant trees. The small trees planted in their place and the debris left behind by loggers act as kindling; in effect, the logged areas become combustible tree plantations that are poor wildlife habitat.
The bill’s supporters also argue that increasing logging and clear-cutting will benefit wildlife. But decades of forest ecology research strongly link the logging of both unburned and burned forests to the declines of numerous wildlife species, most notably the imperiled spotted owl.
Recognizing these findings, some 250 scientists sent a letter to Congress in 2013 opposing a similar version of the current legislation. They predicted, correctly, that the Rim Fire would actually benefit many wildlife species and rejuvenate the forest ecosystem, provided that the burned expanses were not then cleared by loggers…
The bill is titled, H.R.2647 – Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015. The status of it can be followed at Congress.gov. As this is written, it has passed the House and now is before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.
The Op-Ed was written by Chad T. Hanson, an ecologist with the John Muir Project, and Dominick A. DellaSala, the chief scientist at the Geos Institute. They are the editors of “The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix.”
Cold Brook Fire April 13, 2015, shortly after the prescribed fire crossed Highway 385 and escaped. This is looking northwest. Photo by Benjamin Carstens (click to enlarge)
Senator John Thune of South Dakota had a video edited that stars him as he makes statements and asks questions during a committee hearing about forestry issues. The hearing occurred July 16 before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. The panelist in the video is Robert Bonnie, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment.
Mr. Thune was pushing Senate Bill 1100 that he is sponsoring (without any co-sponsors) titled Prescribed Burn Approval Act of 2015. You can see the entire hearing HERE (it starts at 17:00). Mr. Thune’s edited version is below.
In the video, he said, referring to two recent escaped prescribed fires on federal land in South Dakota, [The agencies]….”had no business in a couple of these circumstances starting fires given the weather conditions that were existing at the time, and people at the local level would know that. So all we’re asking for is consultation at the front end before this happens and work with folks and get their sign-off and then on the back end when something like this happens a response that is timely, expedited and effective.”
The Senator got fired up after two recent large escaped prescribed fires in South Dakota. In 2013 the Pasture 3B prescribed fire escaped in the Dakota Prairie National Grasslands in northern South Dakota. It was planned at 210 acres, but strong winds on April 3, 2013 caused by the predicted passage of a cold front pushed the fire across a mowed fire line into tall grass and ultimately burned 10,679 acres, (3,519 acres federal and 7,160 acres private). The wildfire, named Pautre Fire, was stopped at 11 p.m. that night.
More recently, on April 13, 2015 the Cold Brook prescribed fire, which was planned as a 1,000-acre project in Wind Cave National Park in southwest South Dakota, spotted across U.S. Highway 385 and burned 5,420 acres of park land outside of the intended burn unit. The escape was entirely within the boundaries of Wind Cave National Park. A few days later Mr. Thune sent a strongly worded letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel criticizing the National Park Service for the escaped prescribed fire.
The legislation the Senator is pushing is not lengthy, but has some interesting requirements, such as, a prescribed fire can’t be executed on federal land if the grassland fire danger index indicates a high, very high, or extreme danger of grassland fire, or if the Chief of the Forest Service has declared very high or extreme fire danger. However, the project could still be carried out “if the head of the Federal agency obtains prior approval from the applicable State government and local fire officials”.
And there’s this: “A head of a Federal agency that authorizes a prescribed burn shall be liable for any damage to private property caused by the prescribed burn, notwithstanding chapter 171 of title 28, United States Code (commonly known as the “Federal Tort Claims Act”) or any State law.” The proposed bill also says damages must be paid within 120 days of receipt of a substantiated claim.
These provisions raise a few questions. The grassland fire danger index is exclusively designed to predict the potential for non-agricultural grasslands to carry fire. This could be a useful indicator for prescribed fires in grasses, but not necessarily for projects in other fuel types and elevations.
And I am not aware of the Chief of the Forest Service making a proclamation establishing a daily fire danger rating.
I am no attorney, but it appears that the legislation, if it becomes law, would make the head of agencies personally liable for damages resulting from escaped prescribed fires. If so, and if they would not be automatically reimbursed, it could be difficult to entice anyone to accept those positions.
The Commissioner of Public Lands in Washington State is very disappointed that the legislature approved only one-third of the increase he requested to beef up the number of fire engines and helicopter crews in the Department of Natural Resources for initial attack on new fires.
State lawmakers didn’t hesitate to pay $70 million to cover the costs of fighting last year’s wildfires after the flames died down.
But now, as wildfires again rage across the state, the head of the state’s chief wildland firefighting agency says he’s frustrated the Legislature wouldn’t pay a fraction of that amount to help stop new fires from getting out of control.
Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark said he got less than one-third of what he requested for early fire response in the state’s new two-year budget, which Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law late Tuesday.
“The Legislature has left me in a precarious position, with what I view as insufficient resources to meet the threat,” said Goldmark, who leads the state Department of Natural Resources. “Even in the face of (the current fires) and the threat to public safety that those fires contained, the Legislature didn’t seem to care about the public’s safety at all.”
On Friday, the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center reported more than a half-dozen large fires active throughout the state.
Fires scorched more than 400,000 acres in 2014, the most destructive fire season in state history.
Following that record-setting fire season, Goldmark requested more funding from the Legislature to staff additional fire engines and helicopter crews — about $4.5 million above what the agency received in its previous two-year budget for fire response. Yet in the state’s new $38.2 billion spending plan, Goldmark got only $1.2 million of the extra funding he requested.